Yesterday, as I ate lunch with two friends, a young woman came into the restaurant with a scarf covering her head. No need to ask. Cancer and its dreaded attendant–Chemo therapy. Still she smiled a cheerful smile, laughing with her friends as they ate lunch. With courage, she was fighting to live as happy a life as she could.
Now-a-days it is all too common to see women—and men–enduring the after-effects of the vicious poisoning of radiation or chemo to combat cancer. What impresses me is the cheerful refusal of so many cancer patients to bow down to the terrible demands of the disease. I am certain that they cry and rail against it in private, but to the outside world, they smile and endure with stoic cheerfulness. It is a courage that is an inspiration.
We’ve all known hypochondriacs who complain of every ache and pain. They even watch medical shows and are certain they have contracted every disease mentioned. If you pause for even a moment to talk to them, they will fill your ears with their ailments. All too often, their illnesses are simply a reason to get others to focus on them. Not so cancer patients.
I remember my beautiful sister-in-law, Mary. She recovered from a first round of cancer treatments and decided, in her 40s, to become a medical doctor. She managed to complete her medical degree, even though the cancer came back. At one point she missed a test in one of her classes to undergo a radical mastectomy. Her professor gave her a B for the course. Yes, he knew why she had missed the test. He was one of the doctors performing the surgery. She laughed about it.
I remember the wonderful collection of brightly colored scarves that Mary wore to cover her hair loss. Many cancer patients say that losing their hair is the worst part about the Chemo—other than the nausea, the ulcers in the mouth, the retching and vomiting, the dragging exhaustion. And yet, she always smiled. And when she did become a doctor, short though her career was, her patients loved her for her empathy and sympathy and cheerful courageous endurance.
My beloved Department Chair has faced repeated battles with cancer. He never dwells on it but accepts it, uncomplaining, ever cheerful. It even led him to write a book about cancer called Bathsheba’s Breast. He studied the many incidents of cancer throughout history. He described the surgery on Sam Houston’s wife, Margaret Lea, who had a breast removed without the anesthesia afforded by whiskey. She disapproved of drinking. But she had courage.
Another friend is facing increasing levels of leukemia. You would never know it to talk to him. He never mentions it. Never complains. Never looks anything but cheerful. He and his beautiful wife are constantly on the go, traveling to enjoy the wonders of the world while they can. They are delightful to be around because of their constant, cheerful courage and their wonderful stories.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down for a chat with a dear friend who is undergoing a second round of Chemo. Rather than dwell on her illness and the depressing news that the cancer had returned, we happily gossiped about our department, about friends and relatives, laughed over past experiences and enjoyed being together again. We didn’t talk about the next week. She had the courage to face yet another round of chemo, knowing what it would bring.
Her sister had assured her that her friends would drop away, uncomfortable and uncertain about calling or coming by. It is true that the rest of the world may feel ill at ease around someone who is sick. With cancer, the evidence of the ravages of the disease are often so obvious.
So we don’t call. We don’t come by. We worry about disturbing our friends. Will we inconvenience them if we call? Will they want to get up from a sick bed to talk to us? Will they be mortified that they have lost their hair? That their wigs aren’t perfect? That their make-up isn’t just right? That they don’t look as good as they used to? That they will embarrass us?
The answer is that my courageous friends with cancer don’t want to be considered pariahs. They are still here. They are still alive. They still need to live and love and laugh and gossip and be part of our lives. They are courageous enough to be honest when we call. If they don’t feel like company, they will say so. That week immediately after a chemo treatment is always difficult. But once that miserable poisoning is over, they need us more than ever.
So, call your friends. You will be inspired by their cheerful courage. And you’ll get a great gossip session into the bargain.