A friend of mine whose wife has battled cancer a few times over the years said to me he’s “gotten really good at the cancer conversation.” He shared this with me after he learned of my diagnosis. A mutual friend had said to him: “Did you hear about Alan?” In an instant, my buddy “knew.”
I had a similar experience last week, albeit with a complete stranger. I was boarding a flight and, having not boarded early (What was I thinking?), I found there was no room for my roller-board carry-on. I was all the way in the back of the plane – in what we like to call “the frozen fish head section” – and I stopped to rest in the galley, having just heaved my computer bag and jacket into the overhead bin. One of the flight attendants came over and cheerily told me I couldn’t leave my bag there and, as soon as I looked up and she saw I was wearing my mask, her face dropped and she became completely serious.
“Are you OK?”
Now, all kinds of snarky responses bounced around my skull, most having to do with wearing a surgical mask where surgical masks are not normally worn, but upon making eye contact with the flight attendant, I saw something was different.
“I’m OK,” said I. “I’m just catching my breath.”
“No,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Readers of this blog will know that I never shy away from announcing that I have cancer, but something was different here and I knew she had something to say.
From my position down on one knee, I looked up and told her: “I’m undergoing chemo and sometimes I just get winded.”
She got down to my level, put her hand on my arm and said: “You’re going to be OK.” And after I looked at her quizzically, she added: “I just finished my course of chemo for breast cancer.”
It turns out that Vanessa had been diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer, had gone through chemo and interstitial radiation, and is currently in remission. Like me, her initial treatment had been every other week and, like me, she worked through it all and, like me, she had to fly for her work. Most importantly, like me, she didn’t see not working as an option. She had to deal with worse side effects than me, and she had no option other than to be in airplanes all the time.
This was one tough chick.
Here’s what I liked most about talking to Vanessa: she listened. She was genuinely interested in hearing my story and asked the right questions with the proper intent. She didn’t immediately pivot to her story; she waited until I was done talking and shared only when I started asking.
Don’t get me wrong: I love when people genuinely ask how I’m doing and actually listen to my words. But let’s face it, far too many people ask and immediately jump in with some tangentially related story. (“Wow, I know what you mean. My great-aunt Lucille just had a mole removed that they thought might be cancerous but it’s not. But still…”)
At the end of the flight, waiting to deplane, Vanessa and I chatted some more. She again shared with me her good wishes and I offered my hopes that her upcoming scans be clear. I don’t want to say it was “fun” talking to someone else who (1) shared a similar experience and (2) is doing well in terms of her health. Maybe a better word is “refreshing.” I found a kindred spirit who was able to offer a knowledgeable, sympathetic ear in what I had expected to be an unlikely place.