Life is packed with important issues, but most of them fade into the background when an old friend says, “My cancer is back.”

It’s a terrible thing to have a doctor say you have cancer. I’ve heard those words. I’ve known that feeling.

It feels worse when a family member or a dear friend says they have cancer. I can’t explain why it hurts more to hear that news from someone else than it does when you hear it about yourself. In my experience, it just does. It just hurts worse.

Maybe it’s because, when it’s your cancer, your total, single-minded focus is on what you can do and what you should do to have the best chance of survival. You are so intent on handling the situation you don’t take time to really feel what’s happening to those around you. Besides, when it’s you, family and friends are focusing their care and hope on your condition, pumping fresh oxygen into your space.

When it’s a family member of a friend, there isn’t much you can do except try to give them that same attention and concern. You try to put oxygen into their space. No matter how you try, though, it never seems enough, and so you worry for them. You hurt for them.

It’s been 25 years ago now that I had surgery for prostate cancer, and I haven’t forgotten how totally I was into myself and my treatment. Yes, it hurt to tell the kids. They didn’t need the pain of having the old man dealing with a potentially fatal condition. And I felt bad for inflicting that pain because parents aren’t supposed to hurt their kids. But, even though I hurt for their pain, my focus was me.

I recall breaking the news to friends, the members of a church choir I’d sung with for years and years. I apologized for causing them the pain of my diagnosis. The bass player rumbled, “What are you sorry about? We’re the one that should be sorry. You work about getting through it.” And, I confess, while I was sorry they were hurt, my focus was me.

My treatment and recovery were so simple and uncomplicated I sometimes feel embarrassment when I say I’m a cancer survivor. Sure, I had the surgery and hospital stay, four weeks away from work and years of regular check ups afterward. But that was a breeze compared to many cancer survivors I’ve known since.

I was lucky in many ways, primarily in having Nancy, a caring and level-headed nurse, guiding me through many of the uncertainties and decisions. Ten years later, when she received a diagnosis of breast cancer, I tried to be as supportive as she had been. I was caring, but it didn’t seem to be enough. I always felt I was less knowledgeable than she had been about finding good information and interpreting what we read and heard. Mostly I could only care, and hurt.

We got through her surgery and radiation successfully. And we’ve gotten through each of the following years without either of us being told our cancer is back. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine everyone has the same outcome.

You imagine it will be that way for a longtime friend after her diagnosis of late-stage lung cancer. You hurt for her, deeply as she goes through rigorous treatments. It hurts to see what the treatments are doing to her. She struggled through, though even when it seems the cure might be worse than the disease. As she struggles, you and other friends watch, hurt and hope. When she makes it you celebrate and imagine she’ll be just fine.

Life goes on. Politics is in the news. Then a new virus, COVID-19, starts making headlines and stealing your attention. While you are distracted, your old friend goes for a routine screening and learns that her cancer was back.

You barely recall the recent celebrations. What you remember is that this thing, this cancer is deadly serious — devious, sneaky and completely without mercy. And you feel utterly helpless because all you can do once again is care and hurt and hope.