12/02/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2013

Cancer: The Elephant in the Room

You may not know what to say, but neither do we.

There was a bald lady at my church. Avoiding her was part of my Sunday routine; I mean, what do you say to a person with cancer? Especially when that person has openly acknowledged that it's [whispered] terminal? At 23, I had no idea how to relate to all that grown-up-illness-stuff. The idea of death was still as distant as the planet formerly known as Pluto (poor Pluto... you'll always be a planet in my heart). So I orbited, keeping her at a safe distance.

Until one week, when I headed for the parking lot only to realize the cancer lady was standing between me and the sole exit. Panic set in -- what was I going to say?? By then it was too late; she was reaching out to shake my hand, looking expectantly into my eyes. I was hyper-aware, nervous, and fidgety, fumbling for words. She was gracious, lively, self-contained, and... normal? She told me her name was Janice.

I drove away in a mild state of shock. Baseball? Did we just talk about baseball? I didn't know you could talk America's pastime with someone who had cancer. I didn't know a conversation with a cancer patient could completely circumvent illness -- but boy was I glad ours did! With a pat on the back I pulled onto the highway, thinking, I talked to a cancer patient! Good for me. I just did the universe a solid.

Three days later, my doctor told me I had cancer.

I needed to talk Janice -- STAT. During our first conversation I had feared my words might somehow be hurtful or damaging; on the following Sunday, I was simply Danielson to her Mr. Miagi, Luke Skywalker to Yoda, the glad receiver of her "Patience, grasshopper." She understood, reassured, calmed. While others surged around, anxious to hear details and express disbelief, she stood quietly by and smiled her encouragement. Even though Janice knew what was coming down the pike, she told me I'd be OK.

Five years have passed. Last Sunday at church, I saw a bald lady. She greeted people, helped them find seats, handed out copies of the sermon notes. They kept their heads down until she walked past, at which point they immediately looked up to stare. After the service, I sought her out. We talked about scarves, Black Friday, traffic, shopping, holidays. We laughed and introduced ourselves, and neither of us mentioned cancer. I'm sure she was aware of the people shooting sidelong glances at us. I reveled in the power of her valiant presence and remembered what it felt like -- it was often church where I received the strangest comments: "So, um, I was wondering... does your hair fall out... everywhere?" or, "Lymphoma? Oh yeah. My cousin died from that" or the ever popular, "I'd kill to be as skinny as you are right now!"

As someone who's been on both sides of the fence, I wanted to let my fellow church-goers in on a little secret, but it would have been disruptive. I'll share it with you instead: you may not know what to say, but neither do we. While you study your shoes, we wonder if you know, or you just think we've been involved in some tragic, eyebrow-waxing accident gone awry. Even if you put your foot in your mouth and say something awkward, we appreciate it when you try. Chances are we'll say something awkward right back: "I threw up today, and a tomato skin came out my nose. I haven't even eaten tomatoes in four days! Want to see my scar??"