Playing the Cancer Card

     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.

10 thoughts on “Playing the Cancer Card

  1. This is hysterically funny. I am a Long Island girl too….. and when I was terrified five years ago, I had all the problems solved. I was going to have a great body. I'd use all my fatty spots to make the new boobs (did implants instead), would find a fabulous wig (or actually a collection of wigs), false eyelashes to be completely glam…. and then I reached a stumbling block. At that point, I decided I was going to write a book (I didn't), but it was going to be titled, \”What About My Eyebrows.\” I applaud Debbie for a day neither she nor her friend will EVER forget. AnneMarie


  2. Debbie, Great post. I was struck by a couple of things. First of all the number of people in your circle touched by cancer is astounding and disturbing. Secondly, your comment \”I was never really given a task that I thought was helpful enough,\” really shows how helpless those around us feel at times to do something meaningful. Lastly, and most importantly, it's all about sharing those \”normal\” moments isn't it? Whatever they might hold. That's true friendship and you sound like a great friend! Thank you Debbie and Stacey.


  3. Awesome post–I'm glad I'm not the only one who's played the cancer card! My family jokes about it now, but hey, sometimes it works! What to do for a friend with cancer? I found that people who asked what they could do, I couldn't answer. Those that took the bull by the horns and just showed up with dinner, etc., are my angels. Lisa


  4. Thanks, everyone! So glad that you \”got\” how I feel.I should have added that there have been so many \”normal\” moments in our Poker clique, we've become very comfortable with one another. (Maybe a little TOO comfortable at times?) It's certainly made it easier to predict the needs of our friends with (or recovering from) cancer, and that has really helped lessen any feelings of \”helplessness\” we might have.Wishing you all the best of health – and I'm hopeful all of you have a few Poker Pals in your lives. If not, come join our game! (Just be warned – we can be pretty ruthless when it comes to Texas Hold 'Em…)- Debbie


  5. Well said, Debbie! Shopping with a friend no matter what the goal in mind is always therapeutic. That's how we got the expression \”retail therapy.\” I could completely identify with all that you were saying. And I love that cancer card. I admit to using it more than a few times. It always worked. And no one caught on!XOXO,Jan


  6. I loved this post!So well written, you have a wonderful group of friends and you are, obviously, a wonderful friend to your friends.I loved your spin on \”the cancer card\”.All the best,Lisa


  7. I don't live on LI, but I am Jewish and I do have cancer….Mine is not heriditary, but Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews are 10 times more likely to have mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes than the general population. Approximately 2.65 percent of the Ashkenazi Jewish population has a mutation in these genes, while only 0.2 percent of the general population carries these mutations.Note that most U.S. Jews are Ashkenazi (their ancestors came from Eastern Europe) vs. Sephardic (their ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East).Having an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene doesn’t mean you will be diagnosed with breast cancer: Only seven percent of breast cancers in Ashkenazi women are caused by alterations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 (See on!


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