Robin Quivers and I have the same stage of cancer. If you don’t know who Robin Quivers is, congratulations, you don’t spend your day sitting in parked cars so you can hear the end of a story that you are hearing for the second time that day. When Robin disclosed her stage 3C status on the Howard Stern Show, I felt a weird camaraderie, as if she had announced she loves 90’s music and binge eating Halloween candy while everyone else in the house is asleep. Even though our type of cancer is not the same, there is a weird comfort for me, hearing about someone who is staged like me and doing well.
Last month I went to a wellness retreat for metastatic breast cancer survivors. Metastatic is another word for stage 4. It is the last stage, when breast cancer has spread to exotic places: liver, bones, brain. All women with breast cancer have faced their own mortality. Women who are stage 4, face it in a more concrete way. I felt like an imposter as I spent the day listening to these women, meditating and drawing pictures, as my own fears percolated in my gut.
A week before the retreat, a man, I sorta know, said “you need to talk to my friend. You are so alike. Both really great and you both have breast cancer.”
I am starting to learn, what it’s like to be a lesbian in Nebraska or a single black woman in Idaho. People often set you up because they know one other person “like” you.
I had an evening phone conversation with my set-up, as I paced my block. What I thought would be a 10 min get to know you, was a painful 45 minute break down of her experience. I speak to many strangers who are recently diagnosed, I enjoy these conversations. This woman was years out from her initial diagnosis. She started with my least favorite line, “thank god I found it before it went to any nodes”.
If I had an additional minute to live, for every breast cancer survivor who said, thank god it hadn’t spread to my nodes, I would live to be 105.
THANK GOD I AM NOT YOU, is basically how these conversations start. It’s a reminder that I am your worst case scenario. She continued with another greatest hit, “my friends were jealous I got a free boob job”. Your friends are assholes. This is not a boobjob. It is an amputation. It is a surgery that is done to save lives, not to make your friends jealous.
When she began to tell me about her chemo experience, which was a shot of Zoladex, that she had years ago,once a month for 6 months, I had to end the call.
Zoladex is not chemo. I’m currently, indefinitely on Zoladex. Calling Zoladex chemo, waters down what chemo really is. When you tell people you made it through chemo while working and raising kids, with barely any side effects, people will wonder why their sister, cousin, neighbor was sick in bed during her chemo. Not as strong as you or just a drama queen? There is probably an urban legend about an amazing woman that never lost one strand of hair. Your follicles must have been so strong.
Maybe she feels the need to call this medication “chemo”, because it gives her cancer street cred. I know some women who feel people haven’t taken their illness seriously, because they had never lost their hair. I empathize, sorta.
This conversation was actually helpful. It reminded me, when at the Stage 4 retreat, to do more listening than talking and practice the elements of the circles of grief.
What is that you ask? A new NBC game show? Let me try to do it justice:
If someone is going through something hard: divorce, death, a major illness, job loss, etc, the people around this grieving person need to listen more than talk and consider how each word has meaning. Let’s give this a try. If your coworker opens up to you about the death of their 5 year old, you answer with A) “I know exactly how you feel. Let me talk for 40 minutes about the miscarriage I had 15 years ago.” B) tap into your empathy C) listen If you answered B and/or C, I think you get the hang of The Circle of Grief.
Everyone’s fears and sadness are valid and we will all get our unfortunate 15 minutes of grief fame. In this 15 minutes we can yell, stomp feet and demand attention. But, when we are talking to people going through something, let’s all try to do better and be better. And then when you are in the center of the circle, you will be amazed how these same people surround you and listen.
I post this, not with bitterness, sadness, snarkyness or drama. I post today, exactly 3 years from my day of diagnosis: grateful. I am grateful to be No Evidence of Disease. I am grateful to have the most empathic listeners surrounding my circle. I am grateful I am here.