The Friendship of Cancer by Dana Jennings

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The New York Times,

May 11, 2010

Two years after I found out that I had an aggressive Stage 3 prostate cancer, I’ve learned that, more than anything, cancer is about stories and friendships. That was made clear to me again last month when I went back home to New Hampshire, where I visited my old friend Chris. She is being treated for breast cancer, and Chris, her husband, Dave, and I spent a full night catching up, trading childhood hick stories, talking cancer. There are no friends like the ones from back home.

There are no friends like the ones from back home. The three of us know intimately the grooved stairs, burnished with varnish, at our old high school, Sanborn Regional in Kingston, where the steps were worn smooth by more than a hundred years of harried students. We’ve inhaled sunrises tinged by the salty reek of the Atlantic Ocean some 10 miles away. And the “Fremont handshake” — named for a small town that sits next to Kingston — still makes us giggle like school kids: Lace your fingers with the thumbs dangling down like a cow’s udders, then ask the shaker to “milk” your thumbs. And now Chris and I are friends in cancer. So we talked … and talked … that night, telling each other medical tales that we never imagined when we were younger. We talked chemo and radiation, hashed over fatigue and weepiness — shared our unexpected stories. In his fine memoir about having an incurable prostate cancer, Intoxicated by My Illness, Anatole Broyard writes, “stories are antibodies against illness and pain.” And what Chris, Dave and I did that night was manufacture antibodies. In telling our cancer stories, by refusing to be silent, by declining to hide behind stoicism, we take ownership of them, maybe even have a chance to understand them. They’re our stories, and we need to insist on that fact. We shouldn’t cede them to grieving family members, mystified friends or hard-pressed doctors and nurses.

In his fine memoir about having an incurable prostate cancer, Intoxicated by My Illness, Anatole Broyard writes, “stories are antibodies against illness and pain.”

One of my goals that night was to greet Chris in deep friendship, pay full attention to her and to listen hard. Knowing that she was a fellow traveler a ways behind me on this journey, I also tried to give her the gift of my stories, of my presence without any of the condescension that cancer patients often have to put up with. And so we talked. Chris was caught between tears and laughter when she said how one of her friends told her that chemotherapy didn’t suit her, because she thought that Chris didn’t quite have the right face to successfully pull off having no hair. And I was almost moved to tears myself — being even more open to tears has been one of the permanent side effects of my being treated for cancer — by the sheer joy that Chris and Dave took in being with their granddaughter, Gwenny. I nodded in agreement when I got this e-mail from Chris during her radiation treatment. “This may sound stupid,” she wrote, “but I didn’t realize that I’d actually feel something after it was done each day. Maybe I’m just imagining the flesh that is melting inside of me.” (We also discuss moisturizer, and agree that Aquaphor ointment is a godsend for radiation patients and their tender skin.)

But nothing sounds stupid when it comes from a cancer patient. My advice, Chris? Say whatever you want to whomever you want. There are no awards for biting your tongue. And while I’m at it, here’s a couple more pieces of advice:

Cry when you want, sleep when you want, eat what you want, don’t even think about going back to work yet, and hug your husband, daughters and granddaughter as often as you can. As for your hair, your friend is wrong. Chris, you burn with the fierce beauty and wisdom that only come from facing the fires of cancer.