09/30/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Postcards From Lebanon: Part 8 in a Series of Cancer-Related Commentary

Where the streets have no name... (U2)

I thought I'd take this opportunity, as my body ejects the cancer cells and recovers for the next round of chemotherapy, to discuss how different people have reacted to being told I have cancer. Like responses to chemo, everyone's experiences are different. Of course, these are my experiences; but I believe they contain universal truths.

Spouse/Partner/Significant Other:

If you are in a relationship with a caregiver then they will continue in that capacity for the duration -- you are in good, loving hands. If you are not in a relationship with a caregiver you need to understand that the person you fell in love with may not change into someone who can nurse you back to health. It doesn't mean they love you less, it's simply who they are. It may be difficult to understand, but the person you chose to share your life with is the same person -- you are the one who has had a change of circumstance. Let them be themselves; continue to love them for who they are; don't try to make them into someone they are not; and you will both be happier for it.


I don't have any biological children, so I don't have any familiarity for this area. I'll defer to others to comment on their experiences in the comment section below. What I will say is that having been a child I know that the love for a parent is strong -- never forget children love you, unconditionally.


I had an interesting relationship with my mother prior to notifying her that I had cancer (my father passed many years ago). I'd call her and she'd talk about herself, never once asking about me. It was when she was in her late 80s that I told her I had leukemia; then she never talked about herself until I asked, and only briefly -- she wanted to know everything I had done since we last spoke. It completely changed the dynamic of our relationship in that she became both a friend and a nurse to my patient. This change made our times together before her passing that much more rewarding; and, while I may not like to, I have my leukemia to thank -- a silver lining.


We grow up together and then we part, some farther than others. What I would suggest we all remember is that our siblings have their own lives and families; and the distance in multiple factors (age, miles, etc.) impacts the manner in which they respond. Some will be selfless, while others will resort to still being a sibling within the hierarchy of the family. If you can understand this then you can handle how they will behave, from denial (since they don't want to think they may also get cancer due to any hereditary factors) to taking over (usually an older sibling, which can be a blessing and a pain). But let them live their lives as they, too, need to live with your cancer in the best way they know how.


Cancer is the ultimate decider of who your true friends, or angels, are. In our lives we are lucky if we have a few best friends who, when the cancer chips are down, are there without having been asked. We think we know who these people are, but the wonderful thing about having cancer (I know, somewhat of an oxymoron) is the joyous surprises of love your friends will shower on you in both big and little ways. It's as if a ray of sunshine pierces your heart each time an offer, a mention, a meal, a smile, a call, an email comes your way. The simple act of asking, "How are you?" is a radiant sunrise given so effortlessly, yet promising so much.

I would ask that you also forgive those friends who seem to disappear. I had two such friends who, once I told them I had leukemia, never called me again; and this after I had been there for them during their recovery from being run over by a car and a divorce. But I can't blame them, for I was the one who chose to be there for them during their time of need. We each deal with adversity in our own way, and this is how they chose to deal, or, as the case may be, not to deal, with my misfortune. Be prepared for this and you will be a stronger person in the end. And don't be afraid of letting these people go no matter how much you may think you love them or have invested in them, for if they truly love you they will come back. (I know, sounds like releasing that butterfly slogan. Be prepared for them not to come back.)


People who we meet and interact with on a limited basis may surprise you upon finding out you have cancer. There are people you won't know well who have a need to be helpful -- let them. There are people who are good friends of your friends who will rally around you in support of that friend -- embrace them. There are people who will observe silently from the sidelines -- help them. There are people who make offers with all good intentions but no follow through -- forgive them.

And then there are people from your past (near or distant) who may reach out offering encouragement, providing a moment of uplifting pleasure from their simple act of having contacted you -- be ever thankful.


They don't want to know anything; and if they know something, the less they know the better -- for the company. You need to bear in mind that it is the company for which you work. If you receive health care from your company, all the more reason for the company to not want to know about your health. But tell your boss as soon as you know you have cancer; give them as much information as you have because you will need them, the company's health insurance, when the time comes.

My bosses, for the most part, were supportive in our discussions; but they would never broach the subject with me -- I had to initiate any conversations either verbally or in writing. What you need to realize is that they are doing their job, as you should be doing your job. It may seem cold and harsh, but it is the reality of the workplace today -- do not hold it against them.


And yet here you'll find people who care and don't have an issue by asking you, from time to time, how you're doing once they hear you have cancer. People you pass in the hall will display concern for your wellbeing -- totally unsolicited -- as they, too may have experienced cancer in one form or another during their lives. These are the same individuals you may have worked with for years or only briefly who suddenly take a keen interest in you -- hold close those that do.


During the cancer journey you will come across many new faces. Some will become your angels and friends for life, while others will be looking to you for direction and information, and still others may dismiss you as being condescending. Don't ignore the strangers you encounter as they are looking to learn, seeking how to be brave, wanting to know more without acknowledging it. For, yes, we all want to have the knowledge, to be empowered -- they simply may not know it yet. Please note that those who may condescend have their own issues they are trying to cope with -- let them be.


How you react to being told you have cancer, and how you deal with it on an ongoing basis, is as individualized as snowflakes. My advice is to not blame anyone, especially oneself -- it isn't productive. You might begin by reviewing the many self-help books and guides, as well as alternative routes to take. Learn as much as you can about your individual cancer, and then begin the process of educating yourself on how best to continue with your life with cancer. This takes many forms, from the food we eat, to where we live, to whom we have around us, to options for healing with herbs and meditation as well as the medicines you will be prescribed. No one told me I couldn't try something if it had even the remotest chance of it making me feel better. But do ask your health care provider first as some things have been clinically proven to be harmful to the type of cancer you may have, and they will know.

If your cancer was brought about due to negligence or work related practices, it is understandable that you will be upset with the responsible party. I ask that you remember that anger does not make you healthier -- it actually serves to make you worse. First and foremost -- be good to yourself.

As for me, I still feel disoriented and confused from time to time, along with short-term memory loss where I can't remember names and details combined with an inability to concentrate or focus for long periods -- what I call chemo brain; fatigue is a constant, while my fingers tingling has lessened. During this entire cycle I have had nasal congestion and cough which appear to be lessening. And the other side-effects I experience dissipate as I get closer to the next round of chemotherapy -- at least they have so far.

Timing: Oct. 7 through Oct. 12, Cycle Three (3) of chemotherapy.

Where the streets have no name...

Postcards From Lebanon: Part 1
Postcards From Lebanon: Part 2
Postcards From Lebanon: Part 3
Postcards From Lebanon: Part 4
Postcards From Lebanon: Part 5
Postcards From Lebanon: Part 6
Postcards From Lebanon: Part 7