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Welcome to the Club – A Few Words About Having Cancer

December 6th, 2011 by Jeff Simmermon


Originally uploaded by Jeff.Simmermon

You know, there’s an awful lot of cancer going around. I’m not sure that it’s not catching.

Or, you know how people used to smoke cigarettes with asbestos filters and X-ray their feet at the shoe store to see if they had a good fit? I think we’re doing something like that right now, something our grandkids are going to find so shocking and appalling when we tell them about it. They’re going to say “well of COURSE you all had cancer.”

Maybe it’s plastics.

A friend of mine got diagnosed with breast cancer last week. And before that, other friends and other friends. The words that follow are for anyone that’s been diagnosed with cancer and is really, really freaking out about it. That should cover pretty much anyone that’s been diagnosed with cancer, period.

I’ve just found myself emailing versions of what follows out to a number of people recently, and I thought maybe I’d put it out here so strangers could read this and share it.

Here it goes:


Welcome to the club.

There is this really surreal, beautiful thing that is about to happen to you now: you are going to discover how incredibly caring, patient, and understanding the people in your life really are. It’s nothing short of incredible.

People at the periphery of your life will move towards the center and you are about to just be rocked by the kindness of the universe itself, expressed through strangers and friends alike. You will be stunned that so much benevolent energy has been thrumming around you the entire time that you’ve been here, just kind of grumping your way to work and back home again.

You are about to feel very small, in a very good way. You will be dwarfed by the accidental unconditional love that is everywhere, all the time.

You are also about to hear a lot of INCREDIBLY stupid shit from strangers and well-meaning friends. Some people may tell you that you should have been getting kale enemas, others that yoga will reverse everything all the way back to the Holocaust.

These people don’t mean to blame you for enjoying the odd sausage with a whiskey chaser. They’re just people who have spent very, very little time expressing the deep and profound emotions that your illness will stir up in them. Consequently, they are going to do a bad job of it when it’s time to say something meaningful.

Some people, people that you might think are good friends may not be able to handle this at all, and may totally flake out. It’s not about you, though. It’s their ability to handle frailty, illness, and mortality.

I was so, so touched by all the love and support that I got from family and friends — but especially by people I only knew at the surface. The people that couldn’t handle eventually came back. Or they didn’t, and I still don’t miss them.

Other people are going to tell you that you’re so brave and strong, that you’re holding up so well. They will tell you this even if you are literally spitting your teeth out on to the sidewalk in front of them. It’s going to feel very, very surreal. Most things will for while.

And you might resent people for commenting on your braveness when inside it feels like you are falling apart.

Like it or not, you have been shoved into the circle of strength.

Here’s the secret: all you do is all you can do. You’re totally allowed to fall on the floor, cry, be scared, whatever. But eventually you run out of that, too. Eventually you take a little nap and the tears dry up. Then you just go to your doctor’s appointments.

Bravery isn’t being fearless. Fearlessness is idiocy. It’s why they recruit Marines so young.

Being brave means being scared as hell and doing what you’ve got to do anyway.

It’s going to the doctor and doing what they tell you. Maggie (my girlfriend, a cancer survivor as well) always said this, from the day I met her: “Everyone’s going to die somehow. Cancer patients just have more reliable information.”

Don’t beat yourself up for being scared, don’t be afraid to be afraid. Just make sure you do everything anyway.

I got a lot of credit from other people for being all strong, but really, I wasn’t. I was a fucking WRECK for about a year. I’m sitting in my office with my door shut and just bawling as I write this. I cry a lot more now, in general. Not necessarily because I’m sad. Mostly I am trying to just let myself feel my feelings, and sometimes they get really, really intense.

If you want my advice, don’t even try not to be a wreck. Just do whatever, let the waves rock your tiny boat. It’s when people use their oars to fight the ocean that they really embarrass themselves.

I don’t pretend to actually know what it really means to live. Anyone who tells you that with confidence is selling a subscription to a natural food magazine where everyone on the cover smiles smugly. What I do know is this: I feel more connected with my own feelings and the people around me than I ever did before.

Given the choice, I can’t say that I’d be willing to trade that back.

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