What To Say To Your Friend Who Has Cancer
“I love you.” When your favorite person in the entire world, your best friend who puts up with your weirdness and selfishness and still wants go to bars with you and even live with you, is diagnosed with Stage 3 brain cancer, this is the first thing you should say. Let her know you love her and you can’t live without her. But don’t tell her you’re scared because she’s scared, too. Plus, she’s in pain. She just had a kiwi-sized tumor removed from her head, and because the universe is really mean, she’s also allergic to narcotics. She’s recovering from brain surgery without painkillers, so after you tell her you love her, you should get off the phone and cry for hours. Then kiss your cat and go to work because you have to and she’s at home with her family. You’ll see her soon. Tell her you love her every chance you get.
“Yes, I will eat pot brownies with you.” You hate marijuana. It makes you paranoid and each of the few times you’ve smoked pot, you’ve immediately regretted it. But she’s your friend and she doesn’t feel well and it’s pretty hilarious that her mom made these pungent, chocolate happy brownies to help with the pain from her surgery. So for solidarity’s sake, you eat one and laugh with her until she passes out. You try to sleep, too, but you’re fighting off panic. For hours.
“Fuck it. Let’s get a drink.” You are her friend, not her mother or her doctor. Your job is not to search the internet for miracle cures that don’t exist. Your job is to be her friend. Inside your head, you’re screaming and throwing things. You must do something! But remember that there’s nothing you can do. You hate the world because you know she’s nicer than you. She’s so giving and loving and you’re sort of a brat. Why is this happening to her and not you? No one knows. But you know that one of the reasons you and her get along is that you both appreciate the smell of a dingy bar. When you were both jobless in NYC (and you were freaking out about survival, inadequacy, etc.), she’d drag you to a bar, fill you with booze and you’d talk it out. Then you’d make friends and have the best night of your life. She’s recovered from surgery, but soon she starts six weeks of radiation, and oh yeah, she’s having her eggs harvested because if she survives this, she won’t be able to have children. You know what to do. To the bar!
“You’re right, this sucks. Your life sucks, but never forget that you are not alone.” Don’t tell her to stay positive. This isn’t positive. This is awful. Her whole life has been flipped upside down and inside out. She’s the only 24-year-old you know that is working on twelve chemo cycles rather than what to wear to an interview. Twelve chemo cycles: That boils down to a whole year of feeling like her insides are filled with lead and her stomach has decided it’s tired of living inside of her. It can’t really go anywhere so she fights nausea all day. Some days she’ll feel pretty good, but then it’ll be time to start another cycle. And all this is after she’s had her skull opened and sewn shut, and done six weeks of daily radiation. Her hair’s fallen out where they focused the laser, or whatever that thing is that shot radioactive bits at her brain. So don’t try to tell her it’s all going to be OK. Maybe it will be, but right now she hates her life and who are you to tell her to stay sunny? Acknowledge that this sucks and she doesn’t deserve it, but don’t let her live there, in the depths of her misery, for too long. You’ll bring her out of it by being the only one to acknowledge that she’s right — this is so unfair. But then remind her that she’s not alone because you’ll never leave her side. And remind her: maybe it would be easier to just give up, but it definitely wouldn’t be better.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” She’ll be a cancer patient for the rest of her life, even if she goes into remission. What if it comes back? When will it come back? Will I ever go back to my life? These are all questions she has to deal with, and as her best friend, you’ll deal with them, too. This is the one of the only times that it’s appropriate to deflect, to run away from your problems and deal with it later. Because right now, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Realize that it doesn’t really matter. And then reiterate: “I love you. You’re right, this sucks. Your life sucks, but never forget that you are not alone. Fuck it, let’s get a drink. Remember when your mom made us weed brownies?”
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New York City used to be mine. It’s a lot of peoples. Like the guy who is always out there at 6am selling fruit on the corner of 31st and 3rdAvenue.
Employing the word “soulmate” in casual conversation, as if that wasn’t the linguistic equivalent of coughing up glitter on someone in the middle of a sentence.
Perched atop an exam table at Rutgers’ Imaging Center, twitching bare feet, I glance from the standard medical gown keeping me cold to drab linoleum floor to unforgiving fluorescent ceiling lights.
The beauty of things must be that they end.