Lean on Me…

“I think my strength comes from other women…None of us could last by ourselves.” Gloria Steinem

A number of posts recently written by other bloggers have been swimming around in my head. They all deal with support, community and friendship–issues that have been very close to me for years, but especially since moving to New Orleans and now with being a member of the breast cancer club. These posts relate to support networks and who is there for you when the going gets tough. When a person goes through breast cancer, the going has gotten tough–and friends and family are either there for you or they are not.

In the last 5 years, I finished grad school while teaching full time at one of the toughest high schools in Chicago; had ACL reconstruction surgery and rehabilitation; relocated to New Orleans from Chicago for my husband’s career; and have struggled to fit myself into the NOLA charter school teacher mold.  Which means even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, it had been a pretty crazy time in my life with lots of change, life out of balance, stress, culture shock and feelings of isolation. But I also experienced support, camaraderie and growth.

Since the BC diagnosis, I’ve been in a tough spot in regards to support for what I believe to be two reasons: geography and age. The majority of my support base is in the Midwest, divided between Chicago and the Detroit area, 900-1100 miles away.  There are a few scattered family and friends within 700 miles, but a quick weekend visit? Not happening. My parents and sister came in for surgery, but that was a huge ordeal. Many of my friends are busy with families or financially strapped thanks to the recession. How can I expect them to come visit? It was wonderful to spend 6 weeks of my summer in the Midwest last year connecting with people so I know that support exists, but it is hard not feeling its presence on a regular basis.

Speaking of distance, how do you inform those people you are geographically distanced from that you have a really scary disease? Not the easiest thing in the world.

Then there is my age. I’m 45, diagnosed at 43. Luckily, I’m the first of my closest friends to pull the cancer card, but that means I’m the first to go through this experience. I don’t have close friends in place who have been where I have. This is a growth experience for all of us–patient, caregivers and friends alike. I’ve been fascinated with those who sent cards, gifts or flowers–they were either family/family friends my mom’s age who are experienced in the social etiquette of sending cards when there is a major health issue or friends who have gone through deaths in the family.

The thing is, it hurts to have friends go MIA when you need them, regardless of the reasons. Elizabeth at My Eyes are Up Here wrote about these friends in The Time is Now.

Or perhaps the idea of cancer freaks you out because it is a very serious disease, that can happen to anyone, and can kill people. I understand your fear but it is not a good excuse. We live in a world of uncertainty. None of us know exactly when we will die. A compassionate statement goes a long way, even if it is short. Being seriously ill has some extremely isolating moments and for many people, the isolation is chronic.

She gives 7 excellent rules for friends of people who get cancer–or any other life challenge that starts one thinking about mortality. Mainly she is suggesting that the little things such as being present in someone’s life with phone calls, emails, or even reading/commenting on their blogs are all invaluable.

I’d like to give a special shout out of thanks here to Mom, Kel, Kerry and Barb for being so awesomely consistent in expressing your support in this area! :-).

I found it interesting that Renn at The Big C and Me observed recently in her post Of Funerals and Friends:

If you’ve ever wondered who your “real” friends would be if you ever got cancer (or other scary health diagnosis), look no further than your nearest funeral. The people that stand by you when you grieve the loss of a loved one are the same people who support you during your health crisis…Missing during the funeral and in the weeks afterwards? The same people missing post-cancer diagnosis…There’s a lesson to be learned here. Apparently funerals and health scares bring out the best and the worst in people. Make note of it.

Let’s flip this. I now know who I can count on when someone close to me passes on or if I experience a recurrence.

But back to the age and experience issue. This experience has forced ME to be more aware and compassionate of what others are going through and what they may need. Because of the support I have and have not received in the past year, I now have a better idea of the support I should be giving to others.

Quick story:

When I moved back to Chicago from Los Angeles in 2001, I relied on my West Coast cousin, Marilyn, and her boyfriend, now husband, and some Peace Corps friends to help load the moving truck. My friend Mindy helped me navigate a crazily narrow street while I was driving the big truck as well as move a lot of my stuff.  As I was leaving, I asked how I was ever going to repay her for all of her help. She said something along the lines of “JoAnn, you probably won’t be able to return the favor directly, but you will help others move–and I’ll find others to help me along the way.” Karma in its purist form and a life lesson to me. Maybe some of my isolation of the fall is because I had not had the opportunity to build a strong support network in NOLA before the BC diagnosis–and now that I feel more support, it’s time to give back.

May I suggest that we all look around for opportunities where we can be more aware and compassionate of others, lending a friendly hand? As Ms. Steinem says, none of us can “last by ourselves.”

11 thoughts on “Lean on Me…

  1. Freakin’ deep. I surely could not last by myself……..or by solely relying upon the boys I live with who pee on the floor………love ya!


  2. This is a lovely post, JoAnn, and I am honored to be quoted in it! I’m so glad that you are developing a strong support network. It is so important! I lived an academic gypsy life for 9 years before my husband, then infant daughter, and I moved back to my home town in 1999. I have SO MUCH support and I felt a little guilty writing that post. But I am glad that I did because it helped other folks out there who read my blog. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have friends and family so far away and need so much. Take care!


    • Thank you for your kind words and you are very welcome, Elizabeth! I’m sure I will share your insight again. 🙂 I bet giving birth to your daughter while away from ‘home’ was an interesting adventure…Because of the amazingly supportive family/base I have, I’ve had the guts to live a rather nomadic existence the past 20 years, but going through the cancer thing sure has been a wake up call as to the importance of my base–and building a functioning one wherever I am currently living. I’m glad your reconstruction recovery is going so well! Keep being an A+ patient!


  3. Love you Joey!!:-) You are so amazing & don’t think the distance has ever been a problem instead an experience!! I can’t imagine how boring my life would be without all the adventures!! I think we all cherish the time together more because you don’t live a mile away. Don’t for one minute worry that it is or ever will be an ordeal to be with you!!! I agree with Kelly…Freakin deep & I could not survive by myself or imagine doing so!! I am so lucky to have such incredible family & friends!!!


  4. Pingback: Lean on Me…Virtually? | Searching for EMWA

  5. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  6. Soooo very true. Your friend Mindy captured it really nicely. I was a bit like you when I was sick (a bit), in that my husband and I were alone in England while family were off in different countries. It took a long time to be able to ask for help from my British friends. But they responded so amazingly, I’ll never forget it. And I really do believe that good intention is paid forward.

    Good luck in getting involved & building your community. ~Catherine


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s