Remember October 7, 2013? Oh no, of course you don’t remember. That was Before Cancer, that was Before The Blog, that was quite simply, before. On October 7, 2013, I had a lumpectomy of what we thought was a non-cancerous lump in my left breast. Obviously, we were misguided by the radiologist who said “I’d fall out of my chair if you had cancer.” Even before we knew of the cancer, that lumpectomy was a big deal. My mother activated the gossip chains and my cousins called. My friends came over. People brought ice cream. Sammy took time off work. The list of people who requested a “she’s out of surgery” text was quite lengthy. It was a Big Deal.
Fast forward to the same surgery, on the other breast, on August 6, 2014. It was so completely the opposite. It was not a Big Deal, and it was not even a Little Deal. I forgot to tell my bestie the date was changed. I bottle fed a litter of kittens as soon as I got home from surgery. Sam didn’t take any time off. Friends patched together who would take me, wait with me, pick me up (and I am insanely grateful for the way they made me laugh during the ridiculousness). No one required a “she’s out” text. I went to yoga two days later, ran a media workshop four days later, and chucked the pain meds into the overflowing medicine box without taking a single one. It was so completely not a Big Deal. It was not even a deal of any kind. It just kind of happened.
It’s all relative, isn’t it? What we need from others, even for the exact same procedure, varies widely based on where we are in life, what’s going on, the circumstances and relative experiences. Of course, I got incredible emotional support from lots of people for both procedures, and amazingly, I got what I needed both times. The first time, I needed lavish attention and pints of ice cream and reassurance; the second time, I needed mostly non-attention sprinkled with humor about the ridiculousness and not too much concern over what was happenning, pathology reports, or outcomes. I got it, mostly, too, which is remarkable.
It’s remarkable because when we try to help others in moments of crisis, we often lean over the fence and peer into their yard, assess the damage, and throw whichever life ring feels right in our hands. In our hands. That’s the thing, though. When we throw life rings over fences to friends in trouble based on what feels right in our hands, we forget that not everyone’s hands are the same as ours. So often, our helping of others is based entirely in a) our perception of what’s going on and b) what feels right to us. That’s really great sometimes, and sometimes it fails so badly. Like really badly.
See, there’s two kinds of support communities for me— there’s the always there, always was there, always will be there crowd that includes family, friends, and others who were horrified at my diagnosis and wished they could do more than throw life preservers, and then there’s the young-cancer community. The latter is a community that is really different because they know more than the forever community about what the ground under my feet feels like, about what kind of life preserver I might be able to grasp, about when I really just need someone to swim alongside me for a while. They are separate, these two communities, and they are two communities I want to keep separate- for of course, I don’t want my forever community to become part of the cancer community.
I want to urge us, though, to recognize where our good intentions come from. When we go to help, who are we helping? Who’s hands are we considering when we select the life preserver, and how could we possibly understand what life preserver would float best if we’ve never had an experience like the person in crisis? I know that when there are lots of people around throwing life preservers, it can be overwhelming. Often, the life preservers come in the form of advice and suggestions, ideas people have from leaning over the fence and staring at how I’m dealing with cancer, and then opening their mouth to tell me how they would do it, what I should do, how I should do it, how they will help me do what I should do….
And it feels like judgement. It doesn’t feel like the loving advice/help/suggestion/support it is meant to be. It feels like someone who has never been swimming critiquing my breaststroke kick. I try to shout back that their suggestion won’t work, but they’ve never been swimming, so they don’t understand how the water feels when my feet are flexed and kicking, and besides, I’m swimming, and I have to keep swimming, or at least, treading water, so I can’t really stop to chat without my mouth filling with water and then the language gets all garbled and the person with the suggestion for my breaststroke kick just keeps shouting their idea louder, and I know it won’t work, and they keep shouting because they love me and eventually I just put my head down in the water so I don’t have to listen to them anymore. And I promise, it was a good intention.
What did I need, though? I needed someone to follow my lead. I needed them to stop leaning over the fence and peering in with ideas and suggestions and instead, to lay down on their side of the fence and listen through the wood slats, and tell me that they’d keep laying their and listening until I got to the part of the pool shallow enough to stand in. I needed them to start working away at the dirt under the fence, slowly and consistently, until there was enough space to wiggle their fingers through the dirt and into my hand. I needed them to momentarily suspend all of their knowledge (which may be vast) about my situation, and to stop giving advice, and to just be there instead, and support my decisions and actions and needs even if and even when they look all wrong from the other side of the fence.
It’s amazing and remarkable that, given our desire to lean over fences and help people we care about with suggestions and advice and support we know will work anyone ever gets what they need– and not just in cancer, in any crisis. The first lumpectomy, I needed the attention. I needed the long list of people waiting for a “she’s ok” text. The second lumpectomy, I didn’t. Sure, I still needed a friend to come with me a curse the doctor who put the wire into the lump while I was awake and took forever to do it, and I still needed my mentor to say “well… it is a big deal” when I assured them it wasn’t, and I still needed some cancer-friends to check in with me after the surgery. But I so deeply appreciated that there were many fewer voices shouting suggestions over the fence. I sighed a breath of relief that daily life could go on. I needed some semblance of normal.
So, on helping. On good intentions. Sometimes they hurt. Sometimes they grate in ways we never expected. Sometimes it’s worth it to halt the good intentions, the helping, the caring, the assuring to make sure the person in crisis needs it, wants it, can handle it, isn’t drowning because she’s attempting to explain why it’s not helping while she’s trying to swim. Sometimes, its unexpected, hard to understand, makes literally no sense from outside. And sometimes, from the outside, we have to swallow everything we know and remember exactly that… we are on the outside. Because, unless we are part of the cancer-friends group- or whatever like-crisis-group, we are on the outside, and we don’t know what’s best for someone else in crisis. It’s just like that. So, good intentions? Ivan Illich said it best. To hell with good intentions.