I’m sitting in lululemon waiting to join a gathering of young women with breast cancer. I’m uncomfortably early, which is fairly typical for me lately. I always seem to over estimate the time it takes to drive somewhere. The worst part, this particular lulu is up the street from my office. I really should have an idea of how long the drive should take as I used to do it twice a day. The problem with being early and an innately shy person, is that you have to initiate a conversation with people you don’t know. On top of it, everyone is scurrying around trying to get things ready and I’m right in the middle of it wondering if I should help. When I offer, the well meaning hostess shakes her head and tells me to just rest. This makes me feel more uncomfortable.
The title of the gathering is, “Money Matters, The Financial Burden of Cancer”. To be honest I haven’t been thinking a lot about money. I know my husband has and I know I should be. I just haven’t let it join the list of other things I’m anxious about. I scarcely listen to the two guest speakers explain the social programs that are out there for people who can’t work due to illness. A lot of what they are saying is focused on getting through the treatment and recovery period. Most of the government programs expect you to sell off all your assets and savings prior to being eligible. I try to make some notes.
I look around the room and realize that although I have cancer, I’m not really with my peers. They seem to be all speaking of this phase in their lives as a hurdle that they have to get over. After the presentation we are encouraged to mingle and I listen in on discussions of treatment status and struggles with side effects. A woman with closely cropped brown hair describes an encounter she had with a man who had announced to everyone in another cancer support group “drink urine, it will cure all cancers”. If that’s true, why didn’t the litres of bath and pool water I drank as a kid prevent my cancer? Maybe I should start taking baths with my son and drinking the little cups of “tea” he is always offering. As parents of toddlers, we all know the reason we pretend to drink the bathwater beverage offered to us, is that there is a 100% chance that our little one has succumbed the temptation of a warm bath.
As the mingling conversation starts to move in my direction I’m filled with anxiety. I know when I tell my story it will shake up the delicate sense of security that some people have regarding their cancer journey. “How where you diagnosed?” asks a pretty asian woman with an inspired green headscarf tied around her head. I can see the fear in her eyes as she asks me. After I tell my story there is an uncomfortable silence. “I missed my CT scan appointment” she says quietly. I can see that she’s afraid. I don’t know what to say. I look at the floor. After a couple more awkward attempts to revitalize the conversation she gets up and walks to the snack table. I feel bad. This is the problem with mingling in a room full of stage 1, 2 and 3 people. My story tends to hit them in a place that is so vulnerable. Many people I talk to haven’t had CT scans unless they have had a lot of lymph node involvement. I don’t like that my story hurts people.
Interestingly enough it does tend to reveal strength in the room. One person remains after the awkward conversation. She is the only one in the room, apart from me, that has taken off her head covering to expose her lack of hair. Everyone else is wearing a wig or hat of some sort. I look into her eyes and see a calm strength. She’s not really phased by my story. She makes a comment about my hair not falling out yet. I tell her I’m still waiting. She laughs and asks me “what if it doesn’t fall out”. I explain that I had to shave my head to help me face myself and my situation. She tells me about another support group of 20 and 30s and a friend she has met there who has stage 4 ovarian cancer. She tells me twice, picking up on the fact that I need to be encouraged to go. I write the information down. Someone starts packing the chairs away.