THE BLOG
11/04/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Cancer Is Relative

There is a woman with no husband, no children, not even a boyfriend. She has average looks that she tries to enhance every morning before going to work at her average job. If you were to ask three of her co-workers, each one would say she has a different hair color. And not one of them knows she has green eyes. She's polite, but not bubbly. She's warm, but not inviting. She's slim, but soft. She's intelligent, but not boorish. She's a woman who is not outwardly remarkable in any single way.

Then one day at her average job, a man walks in for other business. He is not overtly attractive, though not ugly. He used to have a full head of hair and fifteen less pounds, but all in all, it doesn't matter. He's in a suit that's too small with a tie that's too narrow. He's a man who is not outwardly remarkable in any single way. He scans a magazine, not realizing that the woman has been staring at him.

She has never seen this man before, and being the type of business it is, she will probably never see him again. People come and go every day, and she never thinks twice about it... or didn't, until today.

What she doesn't realize is that the man is terrified. Having no wife, girlfriend, or children of his own, he had come to the conclusion that he would be alone with his work, and that was okay with him... until today.

He noticed her the second he walked in, and he thought that he was more likely to be hit with a flying cow than to spark any interest from this lovely creature.

She can feel the part of her neck near her hairline start to glisten. Without her realizing, her breathing has become more shallow. Pull it together, she thinks. You're never going to see him after today. And besides, he's just a boy.

Perspiration has begun to form directly under his nose. Fantastic, he thinks. I probably look like Richard Nixon with sweaty upper lip syndrome. She will never ever look at...

... and at that moment, two men walk from a back office to the front door, laughing loudly. The man looks up, the woman looks up. Neither person realized that the other used the diversion to try to get a better look across the room. That is, neither person realized...

... until the men walked out of their gaze. There they were, staring at each other. Bag open. Cat out. He smiles. Her toes curl.

Two days later, she is frantically pulling on the one little black dress she owns. She bought it five years ago for a date that never happened. It still had the tags on it, which she neatly clipped with a cuticle scissors. For the first time in a decade, she wore her hair down. Cosmo Magazine gave her the eyeliner tip that would "Drive her man crazy." She slips on her pair of high heels that she'd bought that afternoon on her way home from work. They would give her blisters by the end of the night, but to go on her first date since she couldn't remember, every painful step would be worth it.

As she takes the stairs to the front door of her apartment, her right heel catches a step. She stumbles and catches herself. Her wrist hurts a little from grabbing the bannister, but she has survived. She takes a deep breath, and another step.

And then she realizes that her heel has completely broken off the shoe. And she owns not another pair of decent shoes. And she's meeting him at the restaurant in seven minutes. And the shoe store is in the opposite direction. And she stands in the stairwell... and cries.

"Pfft...first world problem."

That's what my friend told me when I was writing this little story. And then, this same friend started to say, "Dude, you think that's bad..."

I then put my hand to said friend's junk... and punched it. Hard.

I can not tell you how much I loathe the words "First World Problem." In a sense, it's a sneaky way of saying, "You think you have it bad," when directed at you, or "Suck it up, wuss," when directed at someone else. Yes, when you look at the grand scheme of things, is breaking the heel off of a shoe really that bad?

Actually... yes, it really is that bad when you put it into the perspective of the person to which it happened. Because we never, ever know what someone is going through unless we walk a mile in their broken shoes, which is something we never take the opportunity to do. We're too busy, or we're too cynical.

It's just a lousy pair of shoes.

And I will be the first to admit, I used to be guilty of this. I remember when I first got diagnosed with cancer, and I discovered that my chemotherapy regimen was going to be brutal... like to the tune of four hours a day for five straight days, two weeks off, and repeat the cycle three more times. I was quaking with fear. I needed some perspective, so I then started looking up chemo cycles for other types of cancer to see how mine measured out. I learned that for many breast cancers, the treatment is one day for two hours, take two weeks and six days off, and then repeat.

Now let me introduce you to the idiot that was me 11 years ago. I actually said, "Man, that's nothing compared to what I have coming to me."

I still cringe when I think of those words today, because when you are going through cancer, the last thing that will ever help you is comparing your situation to others. Because cancer is an intensely personal and relative experience. There is nothing to compare it to. Yes, I had a lot of chemo in a short amount of time, but who is to say that I had a rougher time with the side effects? What if the woman with breast cancer doesn't have but two days of side effects, but she has an intense phobia of vomiting and she literally prays for 48 straight hours that she doesn't die? Or what if she prays... to die?

I know a lot of people who have wished that upon themselves while going through this miserable experience.

Or what if the colon cancer patient doesn't have the army of support that it takes to get him through the rough times?

Or what if the diagnosis is terminal?

I have friends apologize to me all the time when they complain to me about something. They feel guilty about what happened with me 11 years ago, and they throw out the line, "Oh man, here I am talking to you about my computer crashing. It's not as if I had to battle cancer like you."

For one thing, STOP APOLOGIZING... you didn't give me cancer, and it wouldn't matter to me if you did. And second, it is within our right, and our power, and our humanity to feel how we are going to feel.

Over my 41 years, I have learned a lot of lessons, but perhaps the most valuable is that I have one life to live to the best of my ability, and it is a waste of my time and effort to try to do so for anyone else. Cancer, like life, is a relative experience. It is not for us to compare; it is for us to fight and feel and live the best way we can, no matter how much time we have.

So go ahead and feel absolutely miserable when something goes wrong, or you break your heel, or your computer dies, or the Cardinals lose in Game 6 of the World Series. It's okay, really.

And besides... I've hung out a little bit in the Third World, and trust me: they don't want our problems.

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