Monday, November 13, 2006

Love, Cancer and Vulnerability

Lately, I've been thinking about the vulnerability of loving a person with cancer. Like many folks who are diagnosed with cancer, after my gallbladder cancer diagnosis I found that some of the folks in my life drew closer, and some pulled away. Those who drew closer have provided amazing emotional, physical, spiritual support for me. And those who have withdrawn are suddenly not in touch and not connected. I don't know whether any of my friends in the second group made a conscious decision to withdraw, or if it just happened somehow. And I don't know how many of my friends in the first group, those who have moved closer to me, have thought about the consequences of their closeness.

In the 1980s, two friends of mine were killed while vacationing in the Caribbean. Murdered on the beach, those of us left behind felt shock and horror at their sudden death. This may sound like an obvious observation, but their deaths brought me the realization that when we love someone, two things can happen. They can leave us, through death or dissolution of the relationship, or we can leave them, through our death or a decision to end the relationship. Those are the options, really. It was the first time I was able to articulate the true vulnerability of loving someone, whether it's a friend, an intimate partner or a family member.

In the past, I have been one who withdrew after a cancer diagnosis. My friend Willa was diagnosed with lung cancer almost three years ago, and soon after, we spent a wonderful afternoon eating and talking and sharing stories. She was determined to fight her cancer, and seemed convinced she would win the fight against the cancer. I left that wonderful day with a strong intuitive sense that she would not survive the cancer, and then I had to decide whether to be with her, loving her, but feeling strongly she would not survive, or whether it was better for me to withdraw. I did withdraw, except through cards and emails and phone calls. I didn't see her again before her death in May of 2005. Given that situation again, with my own experience, I would not withdraw, but I would need to decide how to talk with her about my own feelings about her illness. It's tricky.

As a person with cancer who would very much like to survive this illness, I also have a strong intuitive feeling that I am not meant to assume I will survive. I hope, very much, that this doesn't mean the gallbladder cancer will kill me, but the same intuitive sense that told me that Willa would not survive has told me to take this illness very seriously, not to assume that I'll survive. So I do my best not to be in denial, and to take this illness and diagnosis in full awareness of possible/probable consequences. I hope to be here for many more years. But I digress.

Thinking about the vulnerability of loving someone with cancer, I have been thinking about my friends, longterm and new. My longterm, long distance friend Bev has been consistent in her loving attention. When she heard about my diagnosis, Bev called me in the hospital with two things to say: "I love you. When can I come to see you?" Those were the perfect words for me to hear a day or two after surgery, still hospitalized and still reeling from the diagnosis. Later, when she came to visit and stay for a week, Bev sat with me in stunned companionship as we contemplated the diagnosis. "You need another spring, at least," she said, and we both cried. I haven't asked Bev if she's contemplated the intensity of continuing to be in relationship with me, knowing that I have a terminal diagnosis.

I've also been thinking about new friends. I talked with my new friend Sandy about this last week. We've had a developing friendship for less than two years, and we meditate together weekly. Sandy said that she has thought about the vulnerability of being in an ongoing relationship with me, and she doesn't plan to go anywhere. We talked about this and we cried. How much easier, I think sometimes, would it be for her to leave now, and not to wait, not to worry with me as I anticipate a scan, not to worry about where this disease will take me. I don't want to lose her friendship, but I think about this.

And I think about the vulnerability of my family, my family of choice and my family of origin. Because we are family, they may not feel they have a choice, although we all know that family members do sometimes leave when faced with disease, or financial hardship, or the lure of something more enticing around the corner. I think about Patty, struggling with me through the challenges of this disease, and of my children, who are surely too young to lose a parent.

Loving someone with cancer means being vulnerable to loss, to pain, to the struggles the disease can bring. If someone you loved had cancer, would you choose to stay in relationship? Would you move closer, or farther away, or maintain your current distance? Do you know? Could you bear the vulnerability?


Anonymous said...

Vulnerable – yes. Easier – perhaps. Better off – no. To enter into relationship with someone involves risks. Lynne, I am not na├»ve about the possibilities given your diagnosis. So yes, there is the risk of loss, heartache, and sadness. But my life is so much richer since we met. Remember our discussion about the tapestry...I need to trust that life is unfolding as it should. Through grace we met, and with gratitude I will walk with you on this journey. Love, Sandy

Anonymous said...

Lynne, I wouldn't leave a friend or a partner anymore than Jan would leave me when i was diagnosed. I gave her the option, but she would not even consider it. I am so blessed. That said, even though we are not the closest of friends I just want you to know that I won't leave you either. Whatever comes I will be there for whatever you need or want from me.

Anonymous said...

Lynne, and family, we will never leave you. We think about you a lot, pray, and will rejoice with you when you have good news, and if bad news comes, we will do our best to support you all. You have given us, and so many others, joy, a sense of belonging to our beloved church, and much inspiration. We love you all. It is Saturday morning, and we are anxious, too. XO

Anonymous said...

I dont know you but I came across your blog. Im falling in love with this 22 yr old girl, having skin cancer since 5 years. She loves me a lot and her love keeps me going towards her. She says she doesnt want to spoil anyone's life by marrying him. She tell's me she loves me and would love to be my wife but she will not marry me..
What am I supposed to do? I cannot think of losing her if I marry her still...Loving someone with Cancer, especially at this young age is so painful...

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous:

My boyfriend was just diagnosed with cancer 3 weeks ago. I am 20 and he is 22.

I have had troubles dealing with the amount of pain that my heart aches with every morning. I understand the feeling of wanting to marry her. I feel these emotions too about my boyfriend.

She may be hurting inside wondering if she is going to make it do that day. The trick is to take things day by day, you have to put her before yourself. Respect her wants and desires.

She will come back to you, just wait :)

Anonymous said...

Lately, I have been wondering how does it feel when you fall in love with someone who has cancer. I have been friends with a guy for past 6-7 years. He was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. Knowing all about his situation, I still fell in love with him because He is just wonderful. When I told him about my feelings , he said he does not feel the way I feel for him. I am sure he is going to come out of it. But, it breaks my heart to know that he does not feel the same for me.