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Guest Commentary: ‘Family’s great. I got cancer.’

She asked how I was doing. I couldn’t decide if I should tell her. It was early in recovery. I had yet to start radiation. Hadn’t told many people. Felt awkward to say I had cancer. Felt embarrassed as well. Now as I look back upon it, I answered in the most inappropriate way.

Without saying a word I peeled back the collar on the right side of my shirt.

The suture scar began on my neck, below my right jaw, near my Adam’s Apple, and traveled along the right side of my throat, then split like a freeway interchange when it reached my ear. One scar went up and behind my right ear, the other scar made its journey in front of the ear, stopping above the entrance to my ear canal.

To my eternal regret I never got the chance to explain. She took one look and, not saying a word, walked away with great speed. Her expression was that of someone forced to drink a glass of vinegar.

In the months and days and minutes since my three surgeries in October I have never felt more alone. I created it but also felt I was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew I was marked. I could feel the branding iron sizzling my forehead: “Damaged goods, stay away. Don’t touch him!”

Difficult as it was, but necessary, my education in coping with cancer advanced dramatically. The mere recitation of the three surgeries - 12 hours to remove my parotid gland and surrounding lymph nodes, the resulting hematoma and blood clots - had become almost a incidental footnote to the more important and most unpleasant task I face.

Answering this question: “How you doing?”

What could I say? It wasn’t this: “Thanks for asking. Family’s great. Oh yeah, I got a cancer.”

The usual answer: “Fine.” Fine is as close to a non-answer as possible. It’s as intimate as a courtesy nod of the head. Normally you wouldn’t even stop. Only time you’d stop: If you actually thought someone was listening.

The question, however, stops me every time. Stops me in mid-thought. I’ve spent my whole life as a journalist asking questions. And answering them. Yet, the simplest one of them all still makes me feel like a slack-jawed doofus in hesitation.

What do I say? How do I say it? How much information do I impart? How do I hide my self-induced shame? What can I do to prevent blushing? How do I remain calm when hearing a nervous, insensitive response, said with the best of intentions, a response that makes me want to scream?

I’m not alone. Two issues connect all Americans, no matter what our political beliefs or station in life. Every one of us has been impacted by alcoholism and cancer. Knowing someone or being that someone unites us all.

Yet, in that commonality, we are separate. We don’t talk about it. We don’t want to talk about it. Guilt. Shame. Fragility. Pick a reason. There are a lot of them. No wonder reactions are awkward. It’s an unmentionable mentioned.

“The American norm is once you finish (cancer) treatment,” said David Martin, “you don’t have to talk about it anymore. Life goes on.”

Martin, 61, conducts cancer support groups in Petaluma and San Rafael. Been doing it for seven years. Before that he worked with inmates at San Quentin for 19 years. With a master’s degree in divinity, Martin’s official job title is Health Care Chaplain. Martin is quite clear his gatherings are non-ecumenical.

“No proselytizing,” he said.

All are welcome. For those who will have surgery or have undergone surgery or are in treatment. As well as for friends and relatives who are dealing with a friend or a loved one. So dedicated is he, Martin gave me permission to share his number for those who would like more information: 415-446-2507.

Those with cancer experience stages of awareness as they recover from treatment, Martin believes, be it chemotherapy or radiation or both.

Said Martin: “How do I put behind me? How do I put my life back together? How do I respond when someone says ‘You got through treatment. Great. Time to move on. Let’s play golf.’ How do I deal with this specter over my head for the rest of my life?”

That last question presents my most formidable challenge. The threat of recurrence looms. “Am I cancer patient now and forever?” I don’t like that question, nor do I have a comforting answer for it.

“Most people spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder,” Martin said.

Anyone who has had cancer remembers the first time they were told of their illness. It is something you never forget. Like the first time you hold your newborn baby. You don’t forget that either. One represents possibilities. The other feels like a door shutting. You strain to connect the two.

Your child will always be with you, you hope. Your cancer? You hope not. Both events speak to the preciousness of life. Both yank on your emotions. In different directions. With the force of a hurricane. Never will you ever feel more human. Never will you feel more in the moment. Never will you forget who was in the room with you when both happened. Never will life feel more complicated.

I speak of this as an adult, married with two children. But I once spoke of this at a memorial for 17-year old Jenny. She died of leukemia. I stopped my speech three times for the tears. I have made a living with words but I had none that day, none that captured the sparkling vibrance of Jenny and a most promising future she would never be able to enjoy.

So I get it. I’ve been tongue-tied. I’ve been speechless. I made stupid, inane, vapid responses. I’ve walked away thinking to myself, “Why did you say that? You’re a clod.”

Couple responses convey concern by straddling the fine line between cliche on one side and awkward, uncomfortable silence on the other.

“I’m so sorry to hear that. If there’s anything I can do, please call me.”

“I didn’t know. I’m sorry. If you need help with anything, let me know.”

“I’m so sorry. You have a lot on your plate. If there’s any errands I can run, I’m here.”

Like all cancer patients, I wonder what my future holds. My prognosis is good. My radiation treatments are over. The mask I wore I’ll keep for Halloween. Still, I wonder. Will I see my son graduate from high school, then college? How many more hills and mountains will I climb? How many more sentences will I write? How many more over-priced cups of coffee will I buy? Yes, even that.

To every new set of ears that will hear my story, I must consider how my words will land. Will they land like a rock dropped from the sky? Each of us interpret what we see and what we hear through our own history.

Like everyone who has had this experience, I try to be empathetic. How can I be kind about a most unkind subject? God grant me the wisdom not to say: “You feel uncomfortable? Lemme tell you what uncomfortable is.”

Every time I finish reveal-all I try end with the following three sentences. Sometimes it feels like I’m squeezing out these next words like juice from a dried-up orange.

“What’s to complain? It’s another day above ground for me. Can’t beat the view.”

(Aqus Cafe in Petaluma will be holding monthly cancer support group meetings every second and fourth Tuesday. All are welcome: those facing surgery or treatment or recovery, as well as relatives and friends of those who have cancer. Further details will be provided soon on the Aqus Cafe website.

Bob Padecky is a Petaluma writer. He can be reached at bobpadecky@gmail.com.)

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