When You Congratulate Us We Don’t Always Smile

A friend called to talk. One of my cancer friends. It’s like we have journeyed to this land few have seen. It’s as if we share a language known to few. We have the inside edge on Disease.

He told me he was troubled by the response of friends who congratulated him on what the doctor had said was a successful tour of chemo.

“You’re well!”


“You’re going to live!”

“Cancer is gone!”

“So why am I not jumping for joy?” he lamented.

How to join your friends as they smile and clap you on the back?

As if it’s black and white. You had cancer. Now you don’t have cancer.

In reality it’s not black and white. It’s very grey. You don’t have cancer but you have peripheral neuropathy so bad that you can’t walk without feeling shards of glass shoot through your feet. Your fingers are so numb you’re down glassware in the kitchen and thinking about replacing dinner plates.

You don’t have cancer but your brain is numb from toxic chemo drugs. When you phone a friend you can’t remember her name. When you see a friend you have to go through your mental directory until you get the right one: Sherry, Shirley, Cheryl, Shelagh.

You start using lists and memory tricks (I remember the name of a complementary treatment that always escapes me with a picture in my mind of a little bouquet hanging from the doorway at Christmas — mistletoe.)

At least with time for cancer recovery you have time to read. Except you can’t remember the first chapter you read. Or the previous paragraph.

You’re so tired when you wake up you have to rest before you can get out of bed. And you remember what the first oncologist said: there is no cure for this cancer. We treat it as a chronic disease.

So this is living with cancer. Of course it’s better than dying with cancer (that will come later) but living with cancer is about coming to terms with a body that has already failed us. And it might fail us again.

How can we trust that this is the end of Disease so that we can celebrate with those well meaning friends when we know that another journey may be not so far away?

Yes, I know, live in the moment. Be mindful of what is now. Live with intention. Didn’t I write that …?

Here’s to today. Tomorrow we will see.

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2 Responses to When You Congratulate Us We Don’t Always Smile

  1. deb says:

    So well said. There really is no understanding, I think, unless you’re living it (or with someone, daily, who is). I know I didn’t have a clue. And, now, it seems to be the one thing I don’t need a note to remember.


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