Calgary Herald, August 2014: Every summer, I grow a couple of big pots of cherry tomatoes in the back yard. And every summer I employ an elaborate system involving tipped over lawn chairs and a big cardboard box to protect them from the inevitable hail storms. If I’m not at the house when the sky goes dark, I text a kid and hope they can save the tomatoes. But they’re not always home.
You never know for sure when the hail will come.
Just like you never know when you or one of your peeps will go to the doctor with a stomach ache and come home with cancer.
You hear about it all the time. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that in 2014, 191,300 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and 76,600 people will die of it. Cancer is responsible for almost one of every three obituaries you read. It’s even more common than the stories in the newspaper that tell you this or that or the other thing causes the disease. As Joe Jackson sang cheerily back in 1982 “Everything gives you cancer.”
But still, hearing that you or someone you know has it always comes as a shock.
How one deals with that diagnosis and the subsequent treatment is an intensely personal experience. Plenty of folks go dark and only emerge after their mix of surgery, chemo and/or radiation. Some people collect strength and support from documenting their treatments on Facebook. Others get busy organizing their friends and pink boas to Run for the Cure. And a few, like Mike O’Brien, write a blog that will make you laugh and cry at the same time.
The husband and father of a preschool boy has stage four sarcoma, which has an “unbelievably low” survival rate. He was diagnosed three years ago and has already lived longer than expected. “We don’t plan beyond three months but we hope for three years,” he tells me matter of factly.
The comedy writer and actor started the blog, The Big Diseasy: Tumour Humour and Chemo Emo, partly to help him cope and partly because as strange as it sounds, when he’s writing about his chemo side effects, having a good cry or gamma knife treatment he’s not thinking about cancer.
When I ask whether he’s discovered any big existential truths since being diagnosed, he says: “They’re not that big and you’ve heard them before. We hear them every day and we don’t listen to them.”
Choose to spend more time with your family over doing more work. Don’t get upset over stupid things. “And if you are diagnosed, this sounds trite, but sometimes the best thing you can do when you wake up is say I’m going to have a good day.” Something I suspect is easier to pull off on days when there isn’t chemo.
Bad news travels fast, even without texting, so even the very private may consider putting a cooler on the porch so friends, neighbours and colleagues can drop off a meal. And those leaving dinner may want to stay away from Thai curries—O’Brien tells me (after I’ve dropped off a few curries) that chemo plays with your taste buds and can make anything spicy intolerable.
While pitching in with food or mowing the lawn is helpful, O’Brien suggests gently that you may want to refrain from sending internet advice about eating more kale and less meat. And consider how you offer comfort—listen carefully to make sure your words are aligned with how the person frames their disease. While lots of people are emboldened by “fighting” cancer, O’Brien and plenty of others don’t see themselves engaged in a battle.
“I will bargain with cancer. I will squabble. I will flirt, haggle, ignore and hang out with cancer. I will let it tag along while I travel, eat, sleep, breathe and love,” he writes in his blog.
“If this is the final act, let’s focus on Ireland, New York, Disneyland, beach trips, the McCartney concert and acting in the final season of HBO’s Less Than Kind wearing fake eyebrows made of rabbit fur. And Will and Robin and black coffee in the morning. And so many people working so hard to save me.
And if their efforts ultimately fail, please don’t say I lost a battle to cancer. I lost my life, and it’s been a winner.”
In the same post, O’Brien, a new but avid reader of obituaries, suggests running updates about people who have lived another day, or year, or the rest of a big life without cancer.
You never know for sure when the hail will come. So when you water the cherry tomatoes in the back yard, don’t wait for a salad. Pop a few of the red ones in your mouth.