Cancer is a special kind of heartache. The kind that stops you in your tracks. The heartache of dying too soon, when there should have been a cure, of catching you off guard when you still have so much to give, so much to live. Of regret, missed opportunities and unspoken I love yous.
I experienced that special heartache for the first time when my dear friend Donna∗ died of lung cancer shortly after her 60thbirthday—far too young, too soon, too sudden. She had been my best friend and mentor, had introduced me to my husband, had listened to my worries and rants for years, and always been there for me. Until she wasn’t. We had laughed together, cried together over the perfection of her first child’s toes, sung together at the top of our lungs, climbed mountains together and tasted strange foods together. And now I was on my own.
Her family, a close and loving tribe, experienced that heartache too, as did dozens of friends who all felt they had a special connection with her, and the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people who came to her funeral. Heartache was rampant that day, as it was two years later when my friend Ruth died of uterine cancer, leaving a trail of sadness that graced three continents.
I feared that heartache for my own family when I learned of my diagnosis shortly after Donna’s death. And again, four years later, when my daughter was diagnosed with what turns out to have been a pre-malignant growth. She and I benefited from the miracle of science that has lead us to better and better cancer outcomes. But, people still die from disease at an alarming rate. More than 8.2 million people a year around the world. And that’s a lot of heartache.
In Vietnam, where I spent some time training volunteers to become mentors to newly diagnosed patients as part of a program sponsored by Global Focus on Cancer, the stories of heartache were extreme. Some women take their own lives when diagnosed with cancer, so as not to inflict shame or financial ruin on their families. Others lie about their diagnoses in fear of their husbands throwing them aside, made unworthy by their disease, becoming untouchable and unloved. In some areas with restricted resources, even regions in our own highly-developed country, awareness and understanding of cancer is more limited, and diagnosis comes too late for many patients. Treatments that might have worked for earlier-stage disease are ineffective, if not unaffordable or inaccessible.
When faced with a reminder of all that cancer has taken away, I prompt myself to think of the people I know living with recurrent cancer, metastatic cancer, dormant cancer, and various other forms of advanced disease that seem to get on with life as if dealing with a chronic issue. They are the true miracles, reflections of the countless medical breakthroughs that have contributed to our longevity, as well as the sheer determination to live, to hope, to thrive.
Even More Heartache
But there are also all too many reminders of the steely grip this disease has on our lives. In one short week, Joann succumbed after years of battling ovarian cancer, leaving a wake of heartache that rippled through her family, who didn’t fully understand how sick she really was. Danny died of lung cancer leaving a toddler and wife, one unsteady on her feet, the other unsteady financially and emotionally. Cookie was discharged to hospice at home, where she will try to find good caretakers for all the plants in her house and her garden before the season changes for her. And Michelle learned she has mets in her brain and in her bones, interfering with her athletic ambitions and her professional ones. Maybe there will be a miracle and Cookie and Michelle will be spared, but I’m planning on even more heartache.
At times like this, when the heartache cuts too close to home or comes in such rapid waves of diagnosis and death, it can be overwhelming. I know it would be easier to deal with if I could just get a good night’s sleep, but that can be as elusive as the cure for cancer. So, when I feel the deep despair of too many lives lost to cancer, too many tears shed for loved ones who died too early, I try to remember the most comforting sources of solace. A big hug from someone I love. A deep belly laugh over something inane. Breathing deeply in the fresh air. Hitting a tennis ball, hard. A good bottle of wine shared with family and friends.
Sharing the Solace
I can’t bottle the mountain or sea air. And tennis balls in confined places should be reserved for golden retrievers and other four-legged friends. So, as I wander the halls of the chemo suite offering conversation and a smile, I know I have a more limited repertoire to help those who are struggling with their own fears and anticipatory heartache. I hope that by offering a hug to those in need, a hand to hold—literally or figuratively—to those I can reach, a glimmer of hope for patients and loved ones anticipating the worst, that I can ease the fear, even if just for a little while. And I steel myself for the heartache I know will feel if treatment fails for my new friends.
∗I have changed names to protect patient privacy.