Sunday, July 30, 2017
Addressing Things 'Head On'
I'm sure most of you have had to wrestle with this dilemma at one time or another: A friend or business colleague gets a scary diagnosis and begins navigating their own personal version of hell. How do you relate to them with this new information hovering in the room?
They run the gauntlet between doctors' appointments, debilitating treatments and maybe even surgeries... with each one whacking off small pieces of their self-esteem, souls, and maybe even their bodies.
And somehow - especially if they are women - through it all, they are expected to keep their family lives on an even keel, and even 'comfort' well-meaning distraught friends and family who inexplicably express a range of emotions that would be more appropriate at a funeral or shivah (the seven-day mourning period observed in Judaism after the death of an immediate family member).
Zahava and I have a close friend - a young woman with a husband and three young kids, whose life has been deeply intertwined with ours for the past 15 or 20 years - who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
As if life wasn't being unfair enough to this young woman, she got the bad news as a result of a routine follow-up check-up after having undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy due to a family history of cancer and a bad result on the the BRCA Gene Test (a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify harmful changes - mutations - in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes — BRCA1 and BRCA2).
Seriously, this girl did everything right. She eats right, exercises, runs marathons (you can pretty much bounce coins off her, she's so fit!). And when she got her BRCA test results, she made the incredibly brave and selfless decision to have her boobs lopped off.
And yet... here we are.
Which leads me to the dilemma: How we, the friends and family of people going through this kind of thing, fit in and act.
As I've already intimated,the last thing someone with a cancer diagnosis is looking for is pity.
They may need help with managing their day-to-day responsibilities when chemo incapacitates them and doctor's appointments keep them from getting their kids to and from extra-curricular activities (our community has stepped up admirably in this respect with rotating meal preparation and logistical help).
But what they don't need is puppy-dog head tilts, sad eyes, tongue clucking, whispered medical terms or recommendations for the miraculous curative properties of ginseng tea, kale enemas or Mexican crystals.
Trust me, if they want to explore 'alternative medicine', they are probably waaaay ahead of anything you can possibly share with them (the Internet is one scary-ass repository of fear mongers peddling such crap).
You may not fully appreciate it, but while your friend or relative has received a scary diagnosis, they are still the same person. And they desperately need you to remain the same person they know and love. While they are losing control of many aspects of their day-to-day lives, the constancy and predictability that you represent are safe harbors in a stormy sea. If you allow someone's bad news to set you emotionally adrift, don't be surprised to find a growing distance between you. They need calm waters and secure anchors... not more sturm und drang!
But that does't mean pretending everything is okay, or that everything is as it was. Illness takes a toll on a person... as do many of the treatments. It took life 25+ years to take away my hair. It takes chemo a matter of days.
From discussions with our friend, I knew her beautiful strawberry blonde tresses' days were numbered. And knowing how assertive our friend is, I wasn't surprised when my wife told me that rather than wait for the chemo to make her hair fall out in great handfuls, she had elected to get out ahead of it and shave her head.
Yesterday evening I was headed out to my car and I ran into our friend walking with her daughter on the street. She was as beautiful as ever, albeit with a head full of stubble, and I was suddenly faced with a decision I hadn't fully considered; to acknowledge the obvious or ignore the elephant in the room?
I made a split-second decision which was probably somewhat at odds with the norms of our mostly religiously observant community, and grabbed her smiling face in both hands and planted a big kiss on the top of her head.
I don't know who was more shocked, the two grown-ups or the little girl... but the deed was done. To close the deal, I smiled at her and said, "You're really rocking the look"... and meant it. She is really that gorgeous, even without her hair! Then I waved and continued on to my car. The smiles I got from my friend and her daughter reassured me that I hadn't overshot the mark (at least not by too much).
We all have an expiration date stamped on us somewhere, and life is far too short to regret missed opportunities.
I know there have been private tears in our friend's life lately, and countless worried conversations late at night between her and her husband. So I will never regret the smile I saw on her (and her daughter's) face, when I planted that smooch on her newly shaved scalp.
And even on the off chance that on some level my kiss embarrassed her... I'd rather she dwell on that this morning while she's getting her next chemo treatment... rather than obsess about the inevitable side-effects waiting to ambush her over the next couple of days.
Everyone will have their own way of being there for friends in times of need. I've decided that for me, the best approach for this particular friendship is to address things head on, so to speak.
If you assign any value to the power of prayer, put in a good word for my friend and neighbor, Noa Bat Tova.
She's a fighter, but we can never have enough friends in our corner.
Monday, July 24, 2017
In Medical Terms
They're like anti-vaxer parents; enjoying the safety provided by others while denying the danger they harbor.
Metal detectors: society’s vaccines!