When I met Jen 11 years ago, on my first day at a new job, she felt more like a mentor than a friend. But we got closer as our lives moved along the same trajectory. We had our first two children within weeks of each other, and got together with them on weekends. We both bought homes in the suburbs and spent lunch hours complaining about commuting. Then, all at once, Jen got pregnant with her third child and got diagnosed with breast cancer. Our stilted small talk slowed to silence. Despite my determination to be a good friend, I was at a total loss. I felt like a voyeur when I asked her for details. But I felt even worse when I didn’t ask. I can’t imagine someone who hates the perception of pity more than Jen. She’s the strongest, most formidable woman I know. She came to work every day during chemotherapy, sporting a wig and a giant, pregnant belly. She started radiation right after her daughter was born. I’ve heard people say that the exhaustion that comes from radiation is akin to the exhaustion of parenting a newborn. So, um, what does it look like when you’re handling both? You wouldn’t know, since Jen was uncomplainingly focused on her healthy, beautiful baby girl. But she’d tell you that she hates compliments like that — clichéd comments that make it seem as though she has any choice but to forge ahead. She, like me, is not a fan of invoking trite metaphors about silver linings and journeys. This informed me about what not to say, but I was still clueless as to what to say. Anyone who has confronted a health challenge — so, basically everyone — can relate to the friction it can create with friends and family. No one can do anything right. Everyone has an opinion and feels compelled to share it. Every comment feels like a judgment, or hits the wrong note. People are relentlessly positive when you just want to wallow, or all doom and gloom when you need a cheerleader. I tried to show my support for Jen in my usual lazy way — shameless shopping. I organized dinner delivery to her house, got her a Hulu subscription for the hospital, made her muffins and had my daughters color cheerful cards. It was a start, but no substitute for the hard work of really being there for her. After a small window of being told she was cancer-free, Jen’s cancer came back. The medical situation was worse, but we were determined to be better communicators this time around.
My mistakes came from the genuine urge to help and the anxiety of not knowing how.
Jen and I work at a weekly news magazine for children, where part of our professional mission involves creating talking prompts for teachers to use with their students. At home, my older daughter keeps a journal that urges her to complete sentences like: “I feel happiest when...” and “A time I felt scared was...” Jen and I recognized that we could benefit from something so basic, but brilliant. Jen pointed out that a cancer diagnosis is essentially a giant question mark, and there are no concrete answers. To which I responded: “Yeah, totally.” Or something equally insightful. But I looked for help, and found nothing that appealed to those of us who aren’t in the sappy self-help set. So, we set out to create something ourselves. We wrote down an endless series of questions that had troubled Jen during the many months, phases, and stages of treatment. It freed us up to talk more openly, and made me less anxious that I was overstepping my bounds. Realizing it could do the same for other people motivated us to turn our notes into a boxed set of cards called The Cancer Conversation. The cards were designed with the cancer patient in mind: She could use the cards to facilitate conversations with loved ones that would help her figure out and explain the kind of assistance she could actually use. We reasoned that if we had looked for such a guide, other people must want one, too. And our instinct was confirmed — more than 200 Kickstarter backers swiftly helped us reach our $25,000 goal to bring it to market. We spent endless hours researching and interviewing cancer patients and professionals within the cancer community. All of this brought me closer to Jen, and also made me realize how far from helpful my efforts to talk to her had originally been. So we also created sets of cards for friends, caregivers, and couples to explore how they might be able to help more effectively. I’m aware that I view Jen’s cancer as it relates to me. I filter her experiences through my own lens and exaggerate my role in her life. I think that’s human nature. But my mistakes came from the genuine desire to help and the anxiety of not knowing how. Creating The Cancer Conversation helped me and Jen, and we hope it can help you. It’s inevitable that, at some point, someone you care about will be touched by cancer. Let’s hope you handle it better than I did.