Thursday, April 11, 2013


A few days ago, two different friends of mine sent me an LA Times article that's been making the rounds -- “How not to say the wrong thing.” This article made me chuckle in agreement and it made me cringe in horror at dumb things I’m sure I’ve said in the past. I figured I’d write about this piece at some point, and although I didn’t expect it to be today, today was precisely when this article really hit home for me.

This morning I heard some crushing news -- that a woman I know (let’s call her “Betsy”) was recently diagnosed with a breast cancer recurrence. I don’t know Betsy or her story well, but when I heard the news, my heart sunk into my stomach and I felt the room around me darken and spin. I mentally retreated into my own self-centered little space, desperate to resurrect my cancer cocoon, crawl into it, and curl up in the corner. Unfortunately, it was too late for that. So I just tried to breathe, to keep my stomach steady, and to coax my mind back to a stable place. I succeeded into the first two efforts – the breathing and the not puking – but I think I failed on the last part because an hour or so later, I was still completely rattled.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I’ve compared myself to other cancer patients. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either. As Kristin explained to me, it’s a natural thing to do.

Similarly, maybe it was only natural for me to feel like my legs couldn't hold me up after I heard Betsy’s news today. I can’t deny my instinctual, self-centered response, despite that I am pretty ashamed of the self-centered part of it.

So here’s why friends are so important -- because they forward articles like the one that Lauren and Michelle forwarded me earlier this week. This morning, as I tried to find where the ground had fallen to, I got back to thinking about that LA Times piece.

When I first read the article, I hadn’t interpreted the ring assignment literally; I didn’t think that someone would ever actually draw the rings and write people's names in them. Even today I didn’t draw anything on paper, but I thought through a simple drawing, gradually envisioning it on an imaginary piece of paper. Betsy was written in the middle.

Where was I on this sheet of paper, you may ask. I wasn’t even on the page…I was somewhere on the ceiling above the page, or somewhere else distant like that. In other words, neither Betsy nor her friends and family need me to comfort in because in her current battle, I feel confident that Betsy has lots of rings of wonderful people around her.

What my pretend piece of paper helped me to see was that I had confused things. I don't necessarily think that I said anything wrong (even though I could barely form clear sentences about it), but I was definitely thinking all sorts of mixed up things.

For instance, I had put myself in the inner circle with Betsy. Even worse, I may have tried to bump Betsy out of her own circle. Yes, I admit that when my face went pale at the news today, a whole bunch of that emotion was not about Betsy. It was about me. About my family. My kids. My future or the lack thereof.

And that’s why this article is so brilliant. It centered me by reminding me that despite my own cancer, I’m not the center of every cancer battle. 

Sure, sometimes all of our rings will clash and bump and overlap with other people’s rings, especially when those rings formed from the same, or a similar reason. But still, everyone deserves to be at the center of his or her own ring and even in my silence, it was dangerous and wrong to try to squeeze myself into Betsy's space.

A fellow blogger who I’ve referenced before wrote something months ago that I’ve never forgotten. About other cancer patients, Michael wrote that sometimes he wanted "to assert that their cancer is not my cancer.” These words have helped me a great deal, especially today. Because today as I tried to calm myself down, I told myself that Betsy's cancer was not my cancer. At first, I meant that in a superficial way -- that just because her cancer recurred doesn't mean that mine will. 

But a while later, as I thought more about those words, I realized that I had come to understand them in a deeper, more significant way -- if we take on another person's cancer as our own, we make it impossible to form the outer rings of comfort and support for the person who needs that most. 

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