by Suleika Jaouad
I’ve struggled with the awkwardness of cancer ever since my leukemia was diagnosed last May. When I told people my news, some people froze, falling silent. One person immediately began telling a story of an aunt who had died from the same kind of leukemia. “Will you lose your hair?” someone blurted out. “Are you going to die?” an ex-boyfriend asked.
Breaking the news of my diagnosis felt like an existential game show in which people rushed to buzz in with the first thought that came to mind.
I admit to sometimes being hurt by the way my friends have reacted to my news. Some didn’t write or call at all. Those who did often sounded uncomfortable and distant. I needed their support, and I wondered where they were.
When I was first in the hospital, some of my visitors seemed so intent on not upsetting me that they avoided the topic of cancer altogether. Others just couldn’t seem to find any words. When two college friends came to visit, I watched their faces fall as they took in the sight of my bald head and sunken cheekbones. The last time we’d seen each other was at graduation, over diplomas and flutes of Champagne. An awkward silence ensued, and I sensed it was up to me to take the initiative. I took a deep breath: “So, can you believe how weird I look without any hair?”
But in the year since my diagnosis, my feelings of hurt have given way to understanding. How can I expect anyone to produce the perfect, reflexive response to such sudden and unpleasant news? Cancer can catch even the best of us off guard. Sometimes the emotions come pouring out. Sometimes they stay locked inside. I’ve realized that it’s nearly impossible to summon the “right” words while simultaneously processing the news that someone you love has a life-threatening illness. I find myself counseling my friends and family that there is no perfect thing to say — but that they just have to say something.
And I admit to making my own mistakes. Four years ago during my freshman year in college, my childhood friend Chris revealed to me that he had Stage 3 testicular cancer. As he described how the cancer had spread to his abdominal region and lungs, I clammed up. I said a few rote phrases and fled as soon as I could. I didn’t call or write to him again for several months.
Over the course of those months, I thought of him often. I had repeated conversations, at the dinner table or on the way to class, about what my friend must be going through and how badly I wanted to help. My feelings were genuine, I even remember drafting and redrafting a letter to him. But I couldn’t find the right words. In the end, I never sent it. I was scared. Frozen. To him, it must have seemed as if I just didn’t care.
A few months ago, in the middle of my fourth round of chemo, I reached out to Chris and asked him to go with me to a support group for young adults with cancer. It was our first time seeing each other since he had fallen ill.
My own cancer experience has taught me that the most comforting words from friends have often been both the simplest and the most honest. As Chris and I drove in the car to the meeting, I felt guilty, but I also felt lucky to have the chance to finally speak openly about how I had let him down. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,” I told him.
He nodded and told me not to worry. We still had a few miles to go. I was looking out the window at the Adirondack Mountains, the area where Chris and I grew up. Maybe we could be friends again, a prospect I thought I’d surely ruined years ago. We sat in silence for the rest of the drive. But it was a silence without awkwardness. We both were lost in our thoughts, but not too far from each other.
May 3, 2012
Suleika has written about her life as a young leukemia patient in The New York Times Well section. Her essays are called Life, Interrupted.