This time two years ago I was recuperating from surgery and bracing myself for chemotherapy, and very much at the tender mercies of my family and friends. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the people around cancer, and how they support us, if they do.
Most of the people I knew two years ago were brilliantly encouraging and kind when they heard I had a cancer, and throughout treatment. A few were less so. Some were silent. Some sent a card, which was kind, but didn’t email or pick up the phone or visit. Some, when I next saw them, whether months or weeks later, told me they’d been thinking about me all the time. (Maybe they had been. How was I supposed to know?)
There are people I would, I think, have imagined I would have got much more help and care from: and others who surprised me in what dedicated and thoughtful friends they turned out to be.
To start with, I subscribed to the conventional view: cancer (like any other life crisis where you are likely to need to lean on people) means that you find out who your friends are. But I’ve come to realise that it’s not that simple.
I think that the support we can offer each other depends on how much we have going on at the time ourselves: we have finite resources, physical and emotional, and the help we can give to others comes from the surplus from our own lives. But we don’t always see that. I remember when a dear and close friend of mine got divorced. She wasn’t happy about it – it wasn’t her idea – and, as she lived too far away to visit, I resolved that I would call her once a week every week to see how she was doing. And I did. For the first two weeks. And then….. well, I was up to my ears in small children and a new job and other things, and, somehow, it was Christmas before I picked up the phone again. I really wasn’t the friend I wanted to be, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t do more. And I’m sure that’s not the only time someone else’s life crisis has passed me by, because I didn’t have the resources right then to help.
So, I’ve tried to understand all this as I’ve danced with cancer and seen who has cheered me on and who hasn’t, because they’ve been too busy wiping little noses or being bereaved or feeling that they need to focus on their own hopes and needs right now. I’ve tried to keep at the forefront of my mind that, although someone not being there when you need them can feel like the most direct and intimate of rejections, it’s not really personal. And I’ve tried to keep my end of things up too. I haven’t always had a lot of resources myself, but I’ve tried to keep on being the best mother and wife and friend that I can be. I haven’t always done it very well, and I know that, and the people in my life know that too. But most of us understand, I think, that we are doing what we can. And that act of understanding makes life easier.
Cancer, after all, is just another bit of stuff that can happen in life. Births, deaths, marriages, new babies, divorces, new jobs, redundancies, love in the shape of someone you’d never have thought, house moves, strokes of good fortune, illnesses sudden and creeping – they all go on, all the time, for all of us. Those of us dancing with cancer need to remember that, even when having a cancer feels like lying on the slow lane of the M1 while the juggernauts keep coming. Others will do what they can for us – and though that ‘what they can’ may be great or small, we need to appreciate that and try to do the same in our turn.