“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” — Ian McKellen

Jenna doesn’t know it, but she is rapidly becoming my favorite inhabitant of Planet Cancer. I don’t mean that in a romantic or sexual sense; but when you’re banished from the surface of Earth, you have to look for fellowship amongst the dwellers in the abyss, and you come across some surprising similarities. Jenna is, like me, a participant in a highly-aggressive, experimental treatment program for a cancer she’s never directly specified. She’s also old enough to be my mother. She’s not someone I ever would have met if my life had gone according to any of my plans. She’s certainly not someone I would’ve named in the top ten list of folks to spend a Monday morning with when I was a surface dweller. Yet, here we are, griping about infusion pain and the horror of watching nurses in the chemo ward get into full-protective lab gear before handling a substance — in a syringe — that will be in her veins in less than twenty minutes. I can relate; I advise her to take a benzodiazepine before infusions to take the psychological edge off of the physical and emotional pain, and chew the nurses out until they at least put the protective gear on out of sight. Benzos, for the able-bodied, are antianxiety medications that also serve as a great alternative/complementary anti-nausea drug. Like me, Jenna’s not a fan of standard anti-nausea meds, but, unlike me, her regimen forbids her from using them. So she gets injections of an approved anti-nausea medication every five days. Keep in mind, Jenna has not been given a projected “stop” date to chemo. She’s mentioned that she’ll be on these drugs for the rest of her life. It’s a less-than-ideal situation, to be sure, but, as I point out, the key word in that phrase is “life,” not “drugs” or “rest of.” Nietzsche had no idea what properly-motivated human beings are capable of when he wrote the infamous phrase, “Will to power.” God help us if Jenna decides to give political or economic leadership a try, she’ll have an empire to rival Britain’s with that steely determination.

Monday mornings are rapidly becoming my favorite time of the week. And I’m certainly not alone in that; Rob, a gruff combat vet, mentions that he feels closer to those of us in the cancer support group than some of his war buddies, even if he only breezes in once every month or so. Liv mentions that it is beyond helpful and inspiring to interact with people who can describe Stage 0 breast cancer as, “Nothing; that was my light ‘summer of chemo.” To flip a line from Sir Ian McKellen’s other Nerd Franchise role, I am merely a stick insect amongst gods. There are people walking among you who have endured — and triumphed over — nightmares so terrible, they make most aerial bombardments look relatively benign.

Not that it’s all love, good news, and triumphs; a woman new to the group sobbingly states that her husband of 30 years has recently asked for a separation, and she’s terrified he’s just emotionally distancing himself since her oncologists recently estimated she has less than four years to live. She’s starting to look a bit like the classic cancer survivor trope — bald, wizened, etc. I certainly know what that sensation is like, and it is so horrible that I can only begin to describe it. Cancer is a tremendously isolating experience, and it’s hard enough to hear someone put a limit on your life expectancy, but that is, somehow, not the worst part. The worst part is when you learn that people are — emotionally, anyway — betting against you. That people will, even if only subconsciously, side with the disease over you. In a million tiny, little, indescribable ways. Cancer is awful, but the worse effect it has is upon the people around you. When people know you have no future, that you will never have be able to repay any kindnesses or cruelties in the long-term, it gives them a horrible, subconscious permission to treat you with any and all viciousness they wish. And, for far too many in our species, there is no upper limit to our awfulness. It feels awful and suffocating when the realization about our species’ uncharted capacity for evil kicks in, and, for far too many of us, life does not get better. But your psychological suffering does diminish — somewhat — when you stop looking to the surface dwellers for help and comfort, and start looking to your fellow sea monsters. And the beautiful, glorious, flip side of that coin — that we’re all capable of unspeakable monstrosities — is that we’re capable of love and generosity that can light up the darkness in ways you can not appreciate, until you’re at the bottom of the ocean. Because natural selection tends to thin out vicious brutes in cancer support groups (but that’s another story for another time), we did our best to calm her and reassure her that someone — us, at least — was invested in her survival.

Obviously, I don’t have some great advice on how to do that for everyone (return that sense that people are emotionally invested in you, I mean), but, for me, the moment I began to see a potential glimmer of light from my fellow sea monsters — that they believed in me, even if no one else did — came from the incredible Jessica Morris (who also has GBM) of Our Brain Bank (an app dedicated to getting self-volunteered data on glioblastoma symptoms and progression in an effort to improve long-term outcomes). I can’t recall the exact context; it involved my FaceBook page pointing out that there was a livestreaming event at OBB (probably about some update or new features), and Ms. Morris was, between explaining the new feature, enthusiastically greeting everyone who logged in. “…Hello, Jamie! Hello, Patrick!” That was the moment. It probably wasn’t a big thing; she was just pleasantly acknowledging me being on social media at the same time she was. One tiny little glimmer of unremarkable kindness, stacked up against an ocean of ignominious agonies and suffering. It made a difference, though. Just as someone being needlessly mean to you can reveal depths about them, someone being slightly nice to you when there is absolutely no reason to be can restore your faith in humanity in a way that’s hard to understand until that faith has been stolen by other humans.

Which is a very, long, roundabout way of saying, thank you so much, Jessica. One of the lasting, oft-repeated lessons of groups of cancer survivors is to assume that you’ll be dead tomorrow, and leave nothing unsaid or unexpressed that should be said. That could improve someone’s day. That might give someone just enough strength to take one more step.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store