For almost as long as I’ve been alive, cancer has been a constant presence.
I thought that again this past week as a longtime friend went in and out of the hospital, weak and dehydrated and anemic and sore from chemotherapy and radiation aimed at destroying lung cancer cells that threaten her life. She got out in time to quietly celebrate the Fourth with her family and with some old friends, but she has had us worried all summer, and she’s only the latest of our friends to struggle with the disease.
This friend has a great support group for her ordeal, and a lot of people share information about how she’s feeling and responding and reacting. Nancy fills me in regularly with more details than I can understand but that I appreciate knowing. It matters a lot that we can talk about what’s happening with our old friend. It wasn’t always so.
I can’t recall the first time I heard about someone who had either just been diagnosed with a form of cancer or had just died from the disease, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t very old. And kids weren’t always — perhaps I should say were rarely if ever — told that cancer caused the death of one of their parents’ friends or relatives. Even adults sometimes were spared the details. People simply died.
Kids in my day would never have asked their parents what specifically caused the death of that friend or relative who died. It was sufficient, back then, to know that the person had died. In my life, it was only later, over the years in talks with my mother, a brother or sister or a cousin, that I learned a certain person had been diagnosed with cancer and died from it.
“Wow, I never knew that’’ is something I must have said dozens of times as I learned details of such deaths. My mother was one who would casually mention a cancer death from long ago and then show surprise that I hadn’t known. More than once in conversations about such matters, she’d be taken aback at my “never knew that.’’ She’d pause and then say, “No, I suppose nobody told you what caused it.’’ I can’t help but believe a fair number of other kids of my time had the same experience, being gradually trusted as they grew older with similar harsh truths about life and death.
The thing was, back in those days, people didn’t use the word cancer in general conversation, not as it related to a member of the community. Cancer was a word that people whispered, and never in front of the children. Looking back, it strikes me that cancer was almost like one of those evil spirits from folklore. If you didn’t say its name, it might pass your house like a fog and flow on down the street to terrorize some other unfortunate family.
That’s how it was when my dad had cancer back in 1968. From diagnosis to death took eight weeks that summer. He often sat under a shade tree at home, reclining in a green-webbed chaise lounge while friends from the neighborhood stopped to visit. They’d talk about the weather and the crops and the cattle markets and maybe politics or baseball. What they wouldn’t talk about was cancer, the one topic that really mattered to my dad, the one he might dearly have wished someone had asked about. The friends — most of the family, too, for that matter — wouldn’t even say the word in a whisper. Maybe if we ignored it, you know?
When I had prostate cancer, almost 25 years ago now, I didn’t want to talk about anything but my cancer, my treatment and my recovery. Fortunately, by that time, more people were willing to talk about the disease. People even said the word out loud, right to the person dealing with the disease. I suppose I bored some of my friends, and for sure my family, with all of the talk about cancer, but it helped me more than any of them will ever know.
If something is a constant, it probably should be discussed.