In the past, I’ve been fortunate to have guest bloggers remind us our diagnosis extends past our reach to those who care about us, and though, they’re not directly in the line of cancer’s fire, standing on the sidelines is enough to feel the heat.
Today, my guest blogger, Debbie, graciously provides a glimpse inside her corner of Long Island and the unwelcome player at her poker table. She writes from a perspective I’ve never known and hope to never know, that of the friend to someone with breast cancer.
Debbie is a childrens book author by day, a darn good guest blogger and from the sound of it, a great friend. Deb, I can’t thank you enough for sharing.
So, it’s Poker Night.
I’m sitting around a large dining room table with my Poker Pals: a half-dozen or so couples Adam (husband) and I have been playing Texas Hold ‘Em with for years. Sometimes as often as twice a month.
The youngest Poker Pal is 42. The oldest, 51. Some of us have known one another since childhood when our own moms were friends, but mostly we’ve become close through a Jewish organization we’ve been part of for sixteen years. Our kids are close, too (well, they had no choice, really).
Adam (always a teaser) playfully starts in on my friend Shari. “You can’t be in the hand if you can’t make the ante,” he tells her after she antes up only half of what’s supposed to be the bet.
“Wait! Why not? We’ve always played this way!” Shari insists. “You can play one last hand if you have chips left.”
This immediately gets an argument from Mark (friend), who is sitting next to Shari. “But you have to be at least close to the ante,” he argues.
“I am!” Shari exclaims. “I’m just a couple of chips down!”
“Are you crazy? You’re more than a couple of chips down!” insists Lisa (friend) from across the table. “You don’t even have close to enough!”
Shari folds her arms across her chest and sits back abruptly in her chair. “Oh, come on!” she pleads with us all. “Let me play the hand! I have cancer!”
Armand (friend) stops dealing.
Now, I’m pretty sure had this exchange taken place in, oh, say Target (“But I’m only short a dollar – come on…I have cancer!”) …it would have no doubt made the cashier and any nearby shoppers uncomfortable.
But not this crowd.
I clear my throat. “Seriously?” I call loudly to Shari from the opposite end of the table. “You’re playing the Cancer Card?”
“No good?” Shari asks, still hopeful she’ll get away with bullshit.
“Not even close,” I tell her as the hand goes on without her.
Yes, Shari had breast cancer up until two years ago. She was diagnosed the exact same time as Stacey and pretty much followed the same route as Stacey, too, with surgery, a double mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery. And, also like Stacey, she lost both her mother and her aunt to the disease.
It’s almost incomprehensible that out of my seven dear female “Poker Pals,” two have had breast cancer and mastectomies. Three others lost their mothers and aunts to breast cancer. Four Poker Pals’ husbands have mothers who have breast cancer right now. And Shari’s younger sister (yes, younger) is fighting breast cancer at this very moment…for the second time.
How crazy is that?
I mean, how is it possible that out of such a small group, so many of us have been hit by breast cancer? Why? What’s the common thread here – that we’re all Jewish? That we all live on Long Island?
That we all have breasts?
Sadly, I think (but I don’t know because I’m not a scientist or researcher) all three of those reasons are probably true.
I live on Long Island. I’m Jewish. And I have breasts. Thank God I don’t have breast cancer (kenahora– in Yiddish: “without jinxing myself”), but it hardly matters. With so many dear friends living under the black cloud of cancer, I feel their pain. And while I know I don’t feel the same pain of actually having cancer, the pain I feel going through this nightmare with close friends can, most times, be as debilitating, agonizing, and just plain sucky.
Which (finally) brings me to the point of this blog: What, exactly, can the non-cancer friend possibly do to help a friend with cancer? Seriously, there’s nothing worse than feeling totally helpless when all you want to do is help.
When Shari got breast cancer – and years before, when Poker Pal Lisa got it – there was a rush by the rest of us Poker Pals to help out in any way possible. Can we watch your kids while you’re at the doctor? Can we drive you to chemo? Can we bring you food? (Remember – we’re Jewish.)
What can we DO? we begged them. Anything! Tell us anything! Anything that would make us feel less helpless.
But between husbands and in-laws, relatives and even closer friends, we were (I was) never really given a task that I felt was helpful enough.
Pick up detergent at Costco? Big deal, I thought. Call to cancel a manicure appointment? Ugh. Come on – give me something important to do! Order dinner from La Scalla? Whatever. Fill the car up with gas? Small potatoes. Drive the kids home from Hebrew School? Okay…then what? If you’re someone who has a close friend with breast cancer, then you know how useless I felt running such mundane, ordinary errands.
It took me a long time to learn that the Costco runs for Kirkland stuff and the phone calls to Blossom Nails were truly a huge help to my friends. And honestly, what was I thinking I could do to help anyway? Find a cure? Perform surgery? Administer chemo?
One afternoon, I discovered one way I, in the role of friend, could be most helpful. It was the day I went with one of my friends wig shopping. (I’m gonna respect her privacy here.) I was so glad to finally have something monumental I could help with: Picking out the hair she would have for the next 10 months or so? Yes! This was serious business! This would be a HUGE help! Count me in!
What happened was that as soon as we stepped into the wig store and began modeling wigs for each other, all seriousness and decorum went out the door. I had been so focused on the fact that I was “stepping up” and “helping with the serious stuff,” I was totally unprepared for how much we laughed that day while trying on the most insanely UGLY and OUTRAGEOUS wigs! But I know for a fact we had never – in the two decades of our friendship – laughed harder together. “Do you need eyebrows?” the saleswoman asked us. “Because I get you best eyebrows!”
(I had to sit at that point because, I swear, I nearly peed myself right there.)
Anyway, once I stopped laughing, that’s when it hit me: just hanging out and having fun with my friend was monumental. Forget that we were shopping for wigs (and eyebrows!) because she would soon lose all her hair to chemo, being responsible for making us laugh ’till we peed in our pants was helping! Acting like two silly teenagers was just such a “normal” thing to do.
And “normal” can sometimes be just what the oncologist ordered.