I opened an e-mail today that had ended up in my junk mail folder. This isn’t unusual; tons of stuff lands in my junk mail folder every day, precisely because it’s junk: how to lose weight, where to get a deal on prescription drugs, an easy way to pay just $500 a month for a $300,000 mortgage. Occasionally I extract a piece of legitimate mail from this folder when I recognize the name of the sender. But sometimes I get mail from an unfamiliar name, someone I’ve never heard of; I’ve learned to look at subject lines closely, to see if they make any sense. And there are three words that always make me hit the open button: Margie, Laurel, and friend.
Today’s e-mail had the word “friend” in the subject line. It was from Suzanne. I don’t know Suzanne, but she explained that she’d gotten my e-mail address from Margie who, along with Laurel, are the two social workers who spearhead the outreach effort at our local cancer center. Suzanne had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, was having an MRI next week to determine treatment, and asked me a question: “Will you be my buddy?”
I always feel a wave of sadness -– no, a tsunami of sadness –- when I get an e-mail like this. It brings back the day, six years ago now, when I heard those words: you have cancer. I feel again that crushing sensation of life crashing down around me. I remember death, whose sudden appearance makes me lightheaded and breathless. That desperate desire to turn to someone for help… but then looking at the faces around me -– doctor, social worker, husband –- and realizing no one can face cancer for me. I have to do it myself. It was daunting. I did it. And millions of women have done the same thing since.
Now it’s Suzanne’s turn. She sounds matter-of-fact. Practical. Positive. “Will you be my buddy?” Sure, Suzanne. I’ll be your buddy. I don’t know what you’ll have to go through. Could be a “simple” lumpectomy, a few weeks of radiation. Could be the whole nine yards: mastectomy, chemo, and all their attendant side effects.
And let me stop here a moment; I have a bone to pick with that term, side effects. It makes what happens sound so minor, somehow. A mere “aside” on your journey through cancer. When in reality, the side effects are the worst part of breast cancer (unless you die, of course). Breast cancer itself is painless; but watch out for radiation, with its smothering fatigue; or chemo, which could fill a whole book with the varied and particular ways it ravages your body. And then there’s surgery… Could we think of a new term for this, folks? I suggest “devastating results.”
But back to Suzanne. Whatever she eventually faces, she’ll have me with her –- in spirit, via e-mail. When fear wakes her at 2 in the morning, she can pour it all out in print, hit the send button, and know that in just a few hours someone –- me -– will be sharing her fear. Fear is finite; share it, and your burden is lightened. But there’s no limit to love. Share it, and it grows. And that’s why I urge you to look carefully at that “junk mail” before you hit delete. If you’ve survived breast cancer, you’re seen in your community of friends as a wise woman, someone who’s “been there.” That unfamiliar e-mail sender might be scared and desperate, referred by a friend of a friend, looking for a buddy. Set aside your distressing memories; be her buddy. Some day, after she’s finished treatment, she’ll remember your kindness. And she herself may become another link in the “buddy chain:” women helping women through breast cancer.