Recently, I’ve been revisiting the findings of our 2010 national survey of women with cancer, and thinking about how so much of what women told us mirrors my own experience. It got me to thinking about the things women with cancer want. Of course, there are things we all want — a self-clean bathroom, the perfect pair of jeans, great boots — but a cancer diagnosis changes everything and suddenly and somehow, for awhile anyway, many of the things we once wanted aren’t very important anymore.
In our survey, women told us that more than anything, they didn’t want the people around them to treat them differently just because they had cancer. I remember very well the overwhelming need for life to be as normal as possible (which was virtually impossible at best) during my cancer journey. For me, this meant getting up every morning and attempting to brush on touch of mood-lifting blush, pencil on some eyebrows, spritz on some of my favourite fragrance and, of course, put on my wig, just so I could start my day feeling a little more like myself. It wasn’t that I looked pretty, but somehow investing the time and effort into how I faced the day had a powerful impact on my psyche. Even while I was in the hospital — desperately thin and feeling anxious and weak as I faced more nauseating treatment — I wore my lipstick. I suppose that slash of One Perfect Coral on my lips (my late 1980s go-to shade) was my way of showing people that the ‘old’ me was still there, inside a body that was supposedly mine despite the fact that it looked so drastically different. It was an invitation (a plea?) to all of my visitors to speak to that sassy blonde who carries her lipstick everywhere she goes, even if the blonde hair was nowhere to be seen.
‘Normal’ for me also meant getting away for an evening or even just for an hour to enjoy a refreshing adult beverage with my best girlfriends. (That’s me in 1989, taking a break from treatment to attend Flare magazine’s anniversary party.) While it was often a physical struggle for me to get there, I knew that sharing a few laughs would allow me to feel as though I were still engaged in LIVING! And much like the women we surveyed, I craved those moments when I was just ‘me’ not ‘Sherry dying of cancer’. As one of our survey respondents said, “I was cancer girl. It always set me apart.”
But it’s not fair to fault our well-meaning friends and family for acting differently. Most of what we hear about cancer is about the bad news and the struggle so they may be expecting the worse. The people close to you have probably never seen you so unsure of yourself and vulnerable, to say the least. When you think about it, they’re probably feeling pretty scared and vulnerable, too, and they can’t find the right words to convey what they really feel. They might need you to tell them it’s okay to feel the way they’re feeling, but remind them that you’re still you and that hasn’t changed. Sometimes, people need the person with cancer to acknowledge the myriad of emotions that come along with the diagnosis. By putting it out there, you make it okay for them to talk to you about it the way they would talk to you about how your day was, your job or the weather. Tell people what you need to get over each hurdle, whether it’s for them to grab you some groceries on the way over or to take you out for a dirty martini at your favourite old haunt.
And one day, when you aren’t even paying attention, you’ll again start wishing for things like a pair of jeans that fit like a glove and a great new pair of boots … maybe even a new lipstick. You know, the ‘normal’ things in life.