Cancer and the cooties

Do you remember the cooties?

Do kids still do that?  When they won’t touch another kid or even be around them?

Cancer can be kind of like that.  Because sometimes, some people  don’t want to be around.   As if it’s catching or something.  Anyway, cancer is depressing, right?  And who wants to be around someone who’s  sick and sad?

Most people want to be supportive—but typically  people don’t seek out cancer patients  for a good time.

I was the opposite.  Cancer was like a magnet that drew me to people—way before I had it myself.

It started when I was  a TV news reporter in Los Angeles.  I shared an office with another reporter named Phil.  I barely knew him, and I still remember the day he mentioned he was going to the doctor to find out about a lump on his arm.

He was only in his 30’s, and most people would assume it was just a bruise.  But I knew.  I just knew.

I was  already in my late 20’s and Phil was the first person I ever knew who was battling cancer.  That includes my mom;  I never knew she battled cancer until 5 years after she died.  I don’t think I was being noble; maybe  in my heart of hearts I was drawn to Phil because I was curious to learn about this disease.  Phil was my first opportunity.  And I embraced it.

So maybe at first my motives were suspect.  But  I learned what it was like to battle cancer—and I also learned that I got back far more than I gave.

Many of Phil’s other friendships faded as his health faded.    For me, visiting him was never a chore— and I never felt an obligation.   It was a revelation to see that he was resilient, hopeful, humorous.   I didn’t have kids yet, and Phil always had a new funny story about his kids, Katie and Alex.  Sometimes he would walk me around the garden he was planting in the backyard.  Here was a guy planting vegetables he probably knew he wouldn’t live to eat.

And that’s when I realized why I loved going to see Phil.  He inspired me.  I would have missed out on so much had I not reached out to him.

15 years ago, the shoe was on the other foot. When I had cancer, there were people who avoided me, people who just vanished from my life.  Today most people are more enlightened.  But still there’s an aura around people who are sick.   Maybe it just makes us uncomfortable to confront our mortality.

I know cancer survivors appreciate efforts to march in their honor, or buy products with pink ribbons.  But they also appreciate a conversation –not just a casserole.

And the benefits go both ways, as I discovered with Phil.   Though you can’t really generalize, as a group I find cancer patients remarkable.    Each of them in their own way illustrates the inner resources that people discover—-when they say “I never signed up for this.”

I draw so much inspiration from people fighting cancer—they’re my heroes; and that’s one reason I’m on my way to New York—where I’ll be holding a mosaic workshop for cancer patients at Hope Lodge.  Details to follow.

By the way, when I had cancer, sometimes I did feel as if I had the cooties.   I’m curious to find out if other cancer patients did, too.

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  1. Ron says

    Glad to hear you are on your way to Hope Lodge again. The weather is beautiful here and should be great until Thursday (high 40’s ).

  2. Judy Brooks says

    You mentioned my breast cancer to Phil (we were both cared for by the same oncologist) and on one particularly difficult day as I sat on my bed with a mirror and a handful of hair, the phone rang. Phil called to offer encouragement, wonderful conversation and a few laughs. It was not the only such call. I knew he was someone I’d like to call a friend and yet I understood he had neither the time nor the energy to cultivate new friendships. At that point, I wasn’t certain I did either. I still think of him 30 years later (May 26th) and the role he played in my recovery.
    Phil clearly had no fears of cooties but that was not the case with the mother of one of my daughter’s schoolmates. During my period of recuperation, I tried to maintain a normal routine at home with ongoing playdates and activities. One afternoon, one particular schoolmate was being picked up by her mother. After studying my appearance carefully, as she had on other occasions, she finally mustered the courage to ask what was wrong with me. My hairdo, or lack thereof, should have been hint enough but she persisted. When I explained I was in the middle of chemo for breast cancer, those words turned out to be the end of playdates. Her daughter was never again available nor was my child invited to her home. I guess the cooties were too much for her. And she was a nurse!

  3. says

    Classic stories—both of them. I know the second story isn’t typical of most nurses—but definitely the first story is very typical of Phil—to have the compassion to reach out to someone else in the middle of what he was going through— is exactly who he was. An extraordinary person, friend, husband and father–a tragic loss–at age 39.

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