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Friends with cancer

More and more of my friends are getting diagnosed with cancer. This is tragic in every sense of the word.

And here am I, blogging about it. Poor me–it must be rough having to go through all the pain and suffering of having friends with cancer.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,” I say, but so does everyone else. It’s not an information-bearing phrase. The truth is, there’s not much I can do, other than impotently rage, and perhaps write about it.

One day I run into a writer friend of mine at a writerly event. “I’m sorry that cancer is a thing your body is doing,” I want to say, but I feel bad about the prospect of saying something so cliché. Instead, I smile sympathetically, with a bit of a nod. “I’m here for you. I’m thinking about your terrible situation constantly,” my smile says. “I understand what you’re going through, in the abstract sense of one who hasn’t experienced it,” my nod adds. Friend smiles back, but it’s not the kind of smile that reaches the eyes. I wonder how many conversations Friend gets to have that don’t involve cancer. Probably not many, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

“How’s it going,” I ask, lamely.

“Not bad,” Friend says. Another non-information-bearing phrase if ever there was one.

I hate this. And there it is again–poor me, having to navigate the conversational pitfalls of someone else’s suffering. Now I feel bad about feeling bad, and again and again, recursively, until the spiral of grief threatens to overwhelm me.

“I know everyone says ‘if there’s anything I can do to help let me know,'” I say, “but I super-really mean it. Seriously, ask me to run an errand for you. Call me at 3 am, even if it’s only because you need someone to talk to.” Just because we live in completely different parts of the country doesn’t mean I can’t put myself out for you, right? But it still sounds flimsy, even with the explicit disclaimers. Because in all likelihood, there isn’t a fool thing I can do.

“Thanks, that means a lot to me,” Friend says. I wonder how many times that exact line have come up in post-diagnosis conversations, but it’s too depressing a thought to follow through to the end.

Not a thing I can do. Except write.



  1. I don’t want to sully the text of this essay with a commercial appeal, even if it is ultimately for a charity, thus a self-comment. Check out _Bleed_ a charity anthology with a portion of the proceeds going to help children with cancer. My story _March_, which is another attempt at capturing the feeling of inevitability that comes with the territory, appears therein.


  2. You can feel bad, while still recognizing that someone else feels worse. That’s okay.

    You can be sympathetic, and wish you could do something, even when you can’t.

    If you’re geographically nearby, and you offer to help, do the best you can to offer concrete things, rather than just “anything I can do.” Say, I will drive you to chemo next week, or I will make and freeze a casserole so you have something to eat that doesn’t require work (but ask what they can eat!), or loan them a stack of fun books or DVDs.

    Someone newly diagnosed with cancer is swamped with generic “Anything I can do” but may still be at a loss for specifics.

    And sometimes there isn’t anything you can do.

    It does truly make a difference to know that other people notice. Moral support is still support, and it matters. Yes, even at the same time as there’s a glib “had this conversation five thousand times” veneer, it still matters.

    Cancer is overwhelming, and all-encompassing. It’s all you do and think about for a while, and then you settle into the new routine of treatment, recovery from treatment, knowledge that your body has rebelled and is trying to kill you, if without intent or malice. Cancer instantly changes many of the things that form your self-identity, from “healthy” and “active” to more subtle things, like “reads a lot of fiction” or “writes on weekends.” Because you can’t always, and it’s crushing.

    And you’re right, you don’t know how that feels (and I’m happy for you), and you can’t help. And if you ask casually, you’ll probably hear “pretty good,” for whatever the current definition is. (Which may be, not dead and the anti-nausea meds are working, or it may be more or less than that.)

    But if you ask again, you may hear more. And you still won’t be able to do anything except listen, but that’s better than turning away.

    Be honest; look, speak, write. Don’t turn away. Fear thrives in secrecy and silence, the kind of fear that destroys people all on its own. Fight it in any way you can.

  3. My reply is getting a modest amount of traction on Facebook, and many people have thanked me for writing it, so I in turn must thank you for prompting it. You’re right: discussion is good, on both ends.

Micah Joel

Purveyor of things geeky