Once the word is out in your community that you have breast cancer, two things happen. First, you have to get down to the business of having cancer. Which actually takes a lot of time. If only you could earn a living putting in all those hours. (Wait a minute . . .)
The business of having cancer, especially that first week, reminded me of the spanking machine from my youth, but the medical version. Remember in the good old days, before spanking was considered abusive and communal butt touching was not grounds for academic expulsion? When you had to go through the spanking machine on your birthday? All the kids in the class would line up in two rows, facing each other, and the birthday child would crawl through the middle while everyone whacked them on the butt as hard as they could and as many times as they could. The mean boys would use a spelling book as a paddle. Ahh, the 60s.
Anyway, waiting for phone calls from nurses, seeing the general surgeon, having an MRI, seeing the oncologist, having a CT, getting poked repeatedly for blood tests, having a chest x-ray, seeing the plastic surgeon—there they were, all lined up, spelling book in hand, ready to give me a whack as I crawled through the tunnel on my knees.
But there’s a second challenge in that first week of having cancer, in some ways even harder to deal with. You have to deal with being guilty of Having Cancer in Public.
The main symptom of Having Cancer in Public is a lot of eye averting. It begins with the mammogram technicians on the day you are diagnosed and spreads like an Asian swine-bird super virus. You go to Target because you need cat litter and Craisins, and you can’t escape the feeling that the aisles are clearing in front of you as you push your cart to the back of the store where the pet supplies are shelved. It’s like Moses and the Red Sea. Isn’t that Jennifer Smith? Hi Jennif— And she’s around the corner and down the shampoo aisle before you can get the words out.
Of course, this is because people just don’t know what to do in an aisle at Target when confronted with the physical manifestation of human mortality. Especially people who did not hear the news directly from you, but heard it from their neighbor, who heard it from the cashier at the co-op, who heard it from your husband’s colleague, who etc. etc. You don’t know if they know, and they don’t know if you know that they know, and you don’t know if they know that you know that they know, and so on. This has to go on for a couple of weeks before everyone can assume that everyone knows, and then it’s polite for them to just ask how your treatment is going and you say can fine, and you can both skip the whole “sorry you have cancer” thing. This is what manners are for.
Besides, they just went to Target because they needed cat litter and Craisins, and they really just want to get their errands done and go home. And who can blame them. I’m the same way.
But then there are the people you run into who clearly don’t know. Friends, but not quite First Tier friends, so they didn’t get the memo about your diagnosis you sent to those friends a few days back, and they are at Target because they just got back into town from a two-week vacation and there is literally no food in the house, so they have not talked to anyone yet. These people bring the cart to a complete stop, put on a friendly smile, and say, I haven’t seen you in forever! How are you?! You look great!
Fine? Or not fine? That is the question.
If you choose fine, then later, when they find out you were in fact not fine, they will feel foolish and terrible, and it will be your fault. If you choose not fine, and deliver the news right there, they will feel foolish and terrible in the middle of Target, and it will be your fault.
If only Miss Manners would weigh in.
Then there are the complete strangers who take their customer service jobs way too seriously, maybe because they earn a five dollar Starbucks gift card if someone says something nice about them to the manager. Case in point: the clerks at Macy’s.
The clerks at Macy’s go out of their way to ask actually pretty invasive questions, like: So what have you been up to this morning? What kind of day are you having? What are your plans for this beautiful weekend?
I don’t know who trains them to do this. I’d prefer they keep it to a smile and a basic, how are you? It bothers me under even normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, I smile and say fine, “not much,” yes or no, because I was not raised in a barn. But I get a little passive aggressive about it when, to tell you the truth, my afternoon has been pretty awful because I just had an extremely awkward breast MRI to determine whether my cancer is as extensive as my doctor suspects it might be. So I am guilty of giving the clerk at Macy’s way more than she bargained for when she asked how my day was going.
All this social navigation is exhausting, and there really is no preparation for it. You could choose to stay home and avoid everyone. But really, what’s the point of that? Cancer does not change the essential you, and everyone around you needs to get that message. You still have to go out there and buy the cat litter, and change it when you get home besides. You can still laugh and chat in the aisle and care about the upcoming school musical. Just be ready to look people in the eye, speak from your heart, and be the courageous person you have always been.