She looks scared and brave. Her bright multi colored scarf is wound elegantly around her head. She is carefully made-up with pencilled in arched eyebrows. Despite the bronzer, she’s pale, drawn.
But she’s smiling as she says, “I have stage four ovarian cancer. I know that’s not good. I have been reading about it in on the Internet. It doesn’t sound good at all but they already have taken out my lady parts and they said they thought they got it all. So who knows, I still have hope. I mean why not. Hell, you’ve got to have hope.”
“As I am sure you can tell,” she says smiling ruefully, “I’ve already started my chemo. It feels terrible. The only thing I can eat is dry cheerios which taste like cardboard chips.”
“Anyway, I’m here because a friend of mine said that you had it too, I mean cancer, obviously not ovarian. You have to excuse me, I am more than I little anxious. Anyway, I understand that you and your family have written about it and supposedly you’re a good therapist.”
She pauses then she sits up straight, squares her shoulders, and gives me a big grin, and says, “ So, how do you like me so far?”
I chuckle and say, “Well, Alice, I’m liking you quite a bit so far. I’m guessing you’re kind of a pistol.”
“You got that right, Doc. But don’t let my act fool you. I am scared out of my mind.”
“Tell me about that, Alice………..”
So our journey has begun. Both of us know that it could be a very rough road with a very sad tough ending. She knows that her survival odds are quite poor and yet she has no way of knowing and neither do the doctors exactly how much time she has. And she also knows that “statistics don’t describe individuals” She might be the one in a hundred. They might come up with a new treatment. She could make it. Like I have.
And that’s why I am here. Five years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a shooting pain in my shoulder. Within a week I moved from feeling completely healthy to having difficulty getting up and down stairs. I had extremely aggressive stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a a less than 25% chance for survival.
I am one of those miracles. I didn’t expect to be here. I don’t deserve to be here more than anyone else. But some how I am. During the worst of my illness, I joined a cancer support group. In the year I was in it, half our group died. But everyone no matter how sick they were supported each other. Even those who were getting worse were able to cheer me on as I was getting better. We visited each other in the hospital and went to each other’s funerals. We wept together and we laughed together. Membership in the club nobody wants to belong to allowed us to help each other from a profound and healing sense of our shared experience. I knew that if I was fortunate enough to get well, I wanted to devote the rest of my life to working with cancer patients, their spouses and their families. I felt I could use my experience to connect more fully with my clients; to bridge the empathy gap that sometimes exist between us therapists and our patients.
And it would be my way of giving back.
So far it’s working well. Word is getting out. I am getting more referrals. I am seeing couples, and whole families. I am carefully sharing some of my and my families experiences when it might be helpful. People seemed to be pleased that I have “been there and done that.”
And yet many of the people I am seeing won’t be as fortunate as I have been. Some of the people I am seeing like Alice have particularly sought me out because I had such a dreadful prognosis and my recovery seems to inspire hope: even when medically, hope really isn’t very warranted. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all.
Then I remind myself, my job isn’t to save people, it’s to be with them with all of my heart on their path. My hope is to help them help them face what they need to face, and to say what they need to say. I know this: grieving alone lasts forever, grieving together heals.
Next week Alice is going to bring her daughter, Julia in for a session. They have been partially estranged since Alice’s divorce from her father. Julia’s been studying stage 4 ovarian too. She knows the odds.
Hopefully, they will be able to connect, let go of their past, and face the unknown future together. I don’t know if that can happen. But, as Alice would say, “Hell, you’ve got to have hope.”