“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.
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.”