A diagnosis that exposes the unspoken

The word "cancer" wrestles to the surface words and actions hidden in the soul's core.

By Sheila Stoll, Special to the Times
Published August 28, 2007

How do I deal with a friend or relative who has cancer? I don't know what to say or do.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer at age 80, I took her five or six days a week to get radiation treatments. I fed her milk shakes and vichyssoise to keep her weight up.

She was a success story . . . for the second time, having defeated breast cancer in her 40s. Five years in remission is supposed to signify a cure. She died at 87, not of cancer.

My brother died of cancer within two months of his diagnosis; my late husband died within three weeks of his.

I suppose that a lot depends on how early the diagnosis is made. People who won't go to a doctor, who wait until they're really sick before seeking help are less likely to survive.

I have a friend, a wonderful artist, who has cancer. I have never asked what kind she has, what her prognosis is and whether she is being treated. If she doesn't want to tell me, I won't ask. She knows I'm here if she wants to talk about it, but my sense is she doesn't. I don't want to invade anyone's privacy.

A few years ago I discovered that another friend had breast cancer. She was in her 50s. She might have been cured with a mastectomy, but she declined. She claimed she had had a good life and was ready to go. She was 10 years younger than I. Her husband couldn't bear the idea that she would lose a breast.

So she didn't do anything . . . she just died. Her husband's new wife is older than I, but she had "breast enhancement" to please him. He's a happy camper.

A special on TV told about newsman Ted Koppel's best friend, who has cancer and is being treated with chemotherapy.

The regimen isn't pleasant, but the guy maintains a positive attitude. He hopes that fancy restaurants will give him a break from their long waiting lists: "Hey, I have cancer. I might not last three weeks. Can't you get me in tomorrow?"

When friends ask how he's doing, he says, "Still circling the drain." I admire his attitude.

My brother was an Episcopal priest and a New Warrior - defined as a man who has harnessed the inherent masculine aggressiveness to simultaneously be tough and loving.

When it was clear he was dying, he adopted a new role; the Dying Warrior Priest. He made a movie about his dying.

He spent much time planning his spectacular funeral, held open house for other Warriors, family and friends and gave readings of his poetry. He had his son, a musician, provide musical interludes at these gatherings.

He was, finally, totally in charge. I hate bagpipes playing Amazing Grace to this day.

So many people deal with cancer in such unexpected ways that one doesn't know how to react when given the news. No one looks forward to such dire news. Some want to talk about it. Some remain optimistic.

Some don't want anyone to know; they don't want to burden family and friends. Many don't want to spend their time comforting devastated friends and relatives. Many don't want to deal with pity.

But it's hard to hide cancer when all of your hair is gone.

I'm the oldest person in my family. I'm getting used to notes from the daughters of friends who have shuffled off. I have to shake myself in order to realize that they aren't all cancer victims.

Cancer has become the Grim Reaper. We are living long enough to develop that disease, having not been stricken down by tuberculosis, pneumonia or cholera. We also die from heart attacks and strokes.

But cancer looms large. I'm paralyzed by cancer revelations. I'll never know how to react, even if I'm the one with the cancer: "Oh well, that's life." "What a shame . . . Can I bring you a casserole?" "Want to go shopping for a wig?"

We're all going to die. Life is a fatal condition.

Write to Sheila Stoll in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.