Friends with Cancer

So, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a pervasive form of ableism in society — the assumption that everyone’s body is the same and operates the same way. One of the more insidious aspects of ableism is that it’s not a totally invalid lens from which to view the world. If we were all as crippled as me, marathons wouldn’t exist, backpacking would be theoretical, and rock climbing would be a form of science fiction. The dreadful truth is, the vast majority of society isn’t grappling with a potentially lethal disease, which is a large part of what allows it to function (I’ll admit, a 35 hour work week with flexible hours and telecommuting would have halted the Industrial Revolution long before we reached the “Planet Earth is literally burning” stage of capitalism, but you take the good with the bad). The unfortunate byproduct of this is that most ableds don’t have a clue how to interact with disabled folx, and, accordingly, they tend to abandon us to the disease at the word, “cancer.” Which means, for all of my cancer survivor friends, sooner or later, almost all of your friends will be chronic disease survivors of one sort or another. I encourage this, because it’s kind of hard to discuss why you had to suddenly cancel plans last week due to fatigue and infusion pain with people who don’t understand. The rather severe downside is, you will get to personally see friends — dear friends, people who helped you through the worst time in your life — depart this vale of tears long before you.

COVID hyper-accelerated this (I don’t think I went more than three weeks in 2020 without hearing about a friend or acquaintance snuffing it), but the dreadful truth is, we’re all of us teetering on the edge, no matter how strong and stable we might seem. That’s part of the problem — long term survivors are perceived, even by other members of the tribe, as nigh-invulnerable, because they already did the impossible (frequently more than once), so we tend to view them with a (usually well-deserved) reverence. But we are all, ultimately, made of flesh and mortal. And we all move on from this existence.

It’s a little different for cancer survivors than the general population, because if we don’t hear from someone for a few weeks (that really is how narrow the margins of life and death are for us), the most-likely outcome is not that they sailed into the sunset on a yacht. If an able-bodied person doesn’t hear from Juan and Eloise for a year or two, they could probably assume those two had another kid, or got a promotion and moved, or something we usually associate with success or happiness moved them from our view. I don’t get that benefit when I worry about my friends. I have to wonder if they quietly got put in hospice care, or got that dreaded after-hours call, or some other grim fate befell them. And, usually, I’m right (I despise being right these days).

There’s an old adage about never meeting your heroes. Screw that; don’t watch your heroes die.

One of the very few benefits of a diagnosis as horrible as glioblastoma is that it teaches us to get very, very comfortable with uncertainty, because that frequently beats the nightmares that certainty brings. Similarly, I hate going extended periods without hearing from my friends. I hate it as much as you would. I despise hearing about them after such periods even more, because the next e-mail usually ends with, “In lieu of flowers, the family requests…” It’s purgatory to see who deserts you after a diagnosis, it’s a special hell to see the people who stood with you in your darkest hours vanish. And it’s even worse to see the general indifference of the world after such losses.

Cancer survival is a lonely, isolating hardship; it’s infinitely worse that we’re forced to grieve alone, too. One look I know all too well is when a newly-diagnosed survivor asks how we “made it,” or how we kept positive, or any number of questions that can be boiled down to, “How do I get what you have?” Now that I’m on the other side of that thousand yard stare, I understand. You don’t want what we have. Hell, we survived it, and we’re still not convinced it was worth the price.

All of which isn’t to say that we’re unworthy of love or friendship, just that there’s a reason most ableds abandon us upon diagnosis — loving us comes at a cost. As solipsistic as it is, maybe one way to view death and dying is that people come into our lives for a reason — to teach us something, support us, give us a hand up, whatever — and they leave when that task is completed and they move on to the next project. And maybe they aren’t here any more, but maybe they last as long as we do. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me looking for some sort of cold comfort in what is shaping up to be a truly miserable year.

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