Saturday, May 12, 2007

What's So Special About Me?

May 12, 2007

I wasn't going to write about having cancer.

I don't know why not. It's not like I don't know that cancer, and every other thing having to do with the medical establishment and the health care industry, is also a political issue, or that the personal is political. I just felt somehow that writing about it would be too much like whining. It's one little thing happening to one little person, one very lucky and privileged person at that, and anyway, lots of great words about cancer have been written by lots of great writers, so unless you're Gina Kolata or Audre Lorde, shut up.

But finally I've caved into the fact that I'm a writer, and that's what writers do, we write about what's going on in our world, and right now, cancer is one of the things going on in mine. I'm not doing too well with the "big writing" just now so I might as well write about that little thing called cancer that is happening to me.

Not because I'm so special, just because.

That's a mantra I'm trying to practice. A lot of the learning that this cancer thing has to give has to do with acceptance. Accepting the diagnosis, of course, accepting that there are things we can't control, accepting the decisions that have to be made and the ones I have made.

Accepting people's help and caring is probably the hardest for me. So many people have come forward, friends and comrades, offering to do things, and it's a challenge to let them. On one hand, having the support feels wonderful. The food people made is incredible, the subscriptions to Netflix and the New York Times fabulously distracting (well, the NYT's Middle East coverage sometimes makes me feel sicker, but the crossword puzzle is comforting). Rides to and from surgery and chemotherapy are essential, as is having someone with me when I talk to the oncologist, so they can confirm that yes, he really did say I'll either have 4 Taxol treatments two weeks apart or 12 every week. One friend made a whole website (using the free tools at so people can sign up for times to come over and hang out with me while I'm not feeling well.

Then I stop and think, well, why should I get all this help? After all, lots of people in our community have medical issues. Several of my close friends have chronic illnesses, some life threatening and some not, and all of them are frequently in more discomfort than I am now. None of them have websites coordinating support. The only difference between me and them is that my illness is hopefully going to go away, I'm going to be back in my normal state of blissfully ignoring my body. So why am I so special?

I feel like I don't "deserve" all this attention. Then I think, okay, well, I've occasionally volunteered to take food to friends who just had babies, gone to fellow activists' baby showers, visited people in the hospital, stayed over with a friend who had had a hysterectomy. So maybe I "deserve" a little bit of help now.

But then I think about the times I have helped out and the times I haven't, and ask myself, did the people I visited in the hospital deserve it more than those I didn't? Were the new moms for whom I cooked needier than those for whom I didn't? No. Those judgments never entered my head. I did it when I could and not when I couldn't. There were times when I just called or sent a card, there were times when I didn't even get it together to do that. Sometimes that had to do with my own shyness, wondering if I would be bothering someone I didn't know that well, but it never had to do with how worthy I felt the person was.

A friend of mine recently broke her ankle, and she was very reluctant to let us do anything for her. Whenever we would offer to bring over food, walk her dog or do the dishes, she would say, "No, I feel like I should save it for when I really need it." We kept trying to tell her that there wasn't a limited supply of good will. She could have help now and if she needed it later, there would be more where that came from. Now I hear myself saying the same thing.

"I can go to the grocery store for myself," I told a friend.

"I know," she answered, "but do you really want to? Is that how you want to spend your energy when you're feeling fatigued?"

Support from friends and colleagues isn't about cashing in credits we've earned. That's the State Disability Insurance I'm getting, because I've paid into it for the last two years, and because I am fortunate enough to live in California, and the company Supplemental Disability salary continuation I'm even luckier to have because of my good job.

The support of my community is a gift. And when someone gives you a gift, it's not because you deserve it, it's because they care about you. If your friend gives you a book for your birthday, you don't say, "Oh, you shouldn't have done that, I can afford to buy books and Marcy across the street can't, so you should give your presents to her." You just say thank you.

I'm also recognizing that there's an arrogance in feeling that I should always be the one helping, and never the one needing help. Our society increasingly divides people into helpers, helped, and helpless.

The other day, I had an episode of panic I'll write about later. It propelled me to do something I had been meaning to do: call the Women's Cancer Resource Center for support group referrals. In the course of playing phone tag with the very sweet hotline volunteer, I learned that they are currently short of volunteers, because many of them are pre-med students who are now having exams and getting ready to leave for the summer.

"Maybe I could volunteer while I'm not working," I immediately suggested.

In fact, it would be a good match because the work sounds very similar to staffing the ACCESS Women's Health Information Hotline, which I did for several years. However, the volunteer said they don't like people to volunteer while they're in treatment, because it can be kind of overwhelming.

I was disappointed, even though I don't actually need more projects. I realized that I would feel better accepting help if I were also giving it. There's something humiliating about simply letting myself be needy. Then I reflect, does that mean that the women I gave information and referrals on the ACCESS hotline should feel humiliated? The many women I counseled during my years volunteering with San Francisco Women Against Rape?

No, of course not, I answer myself.

"Well, are you sure?" my alter ego challenges. "What's the difference between them and you? Why are you so special?"

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