Sick days

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In the past two years, my aunt has had first breast cancer and then cancer of the stomach lining. No one said so, but I’m pretty sure everyone thought she was a goner—including herself—especially that second time the diagnosis came up positive. But she was incredibly lucky: The doctors performed a procedure in which they took out all her stomach organs, bathed them in chemo and then put her organs back in her body. Somehow it worked and she’s back to competing in 100-mile endurance horseback rides and trying to keep my grandmother happy-ish.

During the period when Aunt Susie was going through chemo and operations and diagnosis and, I’m sure, unspeakable anxiety and fear, she and her husband were so conscientious about updating us all (her family) on any and all news: how she was doing, what the doctors were saying, whether she had been able to make it out of bed to the barn to see her horses. I never knew how to respond to those e-mails. I mean, of course I responded, but I didn’t know what to say. I would overthink each response, trying to make sure I included the right ratio of jokes to sympathetic inquiries and small talk about my own small life.

After listening to his monthly NPR commentary on his battle with colon cancer for a year now—and getting teary with each update—I finally made my way to Leroy Sievers’ blog, My Cancer. My first thought on reading it through was, “I hope Aunt Susie reads this thing.” It’s not just Sievers’ own diary of thoughts and struggles and triumphs that I found so honest and human, it’s the community of commenters that his thoughts and struggles and triumphs have fostered. With any given post there are countless comments from cancer patients from all over the world and the people who love them; it’s a universe unto itself. Everything from the pain of chemo to what it means to be in remission is dissected in detail as lives you’ll never know come to life on the computer screen.

Poring over these intensely personal confessions, I think that reading the words of strangers—removed from my own experiences with the disease—allow me to better understand what my aunt needed at the time of her operation and what she needs now. The people here talk about these needs and wants, and—perhaps not surprisingly given that only those who’ve had cancer can really understand it—what they need and want is much the same for each person: the right word, the right gesture, another day, a few more years. I hope my aunt gets all these things and more. I hope she has a community to understand her. 

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