" I'll stand by you. So if you're mad get mad, don't hold it all inside. Come on and talk to me now. Hey there, what you got to hide? I get angry too, well Im a lot like you."
-The Pretenders, "I'll Stand By You"
“How do you do it? How do you handle the loss of these people you knew? Your friends? How? Maybe you need to take a break, just for a little while…”
If I had a dime for each time I’ve heard statements made in this vein, from those that love me the most, I could retire. Well, maybe not retire but I could probably go to Fiji…for a couple of weeks. I know it hurts them to see me mourn the loss of another friend, another pink sistah, another thriver, or lifer that has left our world; when I tell them that I have another wake, funeral or memorial service to attend.
But I can’t just walk away, not even for a little while. Not even when things get tough. Cancer is the illness of a lifetime. Not that I’m trying to make cancer feel like it is all that and a bag of chips but it stays with you – forever. Once you’ve been diagnosed everything you took for granted becomes magnified, tenfold; the good, the bad, and the ugly. You will always get that little twinge of pain somewhere on your body or a cough or a headache that will make you pause and panic. You will always have follow-up visits with an oncologist and possibly even a surgeon. You will always have to list it as part of your medical history.
Cancer is so damn selfish. It steals so many things: innocence, stability, financial security, health, but the worst things it steals is your friends. Because once you move into Cancertown you find your tribe. You’ll have a chemo buddy or a support group friend that likes to head out for a quick drink just as much as you do. You’ll find someone at your surgeon’s office that dons the same quirky F*** Cancer hat that you do. You’ll know the person that always has a connection to get you the herbs that alleviate your pain and allow you to function more like a human and less like a medical experiment. You’ll joke with these people. You’ll talk about your kid’s achievements or the devastation this illness has had on your personal relationships. You’ll build these friendships over a connection that no one else will ever understand. Together these connections become bridges that get you from normal to new normal and sometimes you’ll build a bridge from life to death. I hate that bridge. No one wants to cross that bridge but in Cancertown those bridges bisect so many roads eventually you’ll find yourself holding the hand of a friend that has no more options…and if the situation was reversed you know they’d hold your hand too.
You never get used to it. Every cancer death is a gut punch and when it is a friend or a peer those are the punches that take your breath away.
Nicole was my first, then Marianne. Soon after came Annemarie and in what seems like the blink of an eye, Roni. Last month it was Amanda and this month it was Veo. These are women I knew, from my community, from Cancertown, from doctor’s offices, and survivor runways (yes, some of us strut our stuff scars and all and damn we can work it baby). We’ve had brunches and dinners and marathon late-night Facebook messaging when the cancer demons steal our ability to sleep. All those connections now lost; it never gets easier.
I think back to 2007, when I was first diagnosed, I was obsessed with the 'why.' I needed a reason. I understand that I’ll never have one but the only thing that makes sense is to continue giving back to this community, maintaining these relationships, forming friendships, and building bridges. It’s so much more than just being supportive but being a friend, being there for them when others may choose to walk away.
I’ll never back away from the uncomfortableness of cancer. I will always try to find a way to make someone smile, even on his or her darkest day, and I always will be here, for you.