From the first moment I faced the potential of cancer, there was isolation. I carried the secret for days, unable to tell my husband. How could I cause him worry? How would I reassure my children? How to tell my mother and large, extended family? How do I break the news to my friends?
Each time I submitted to a test, or visited a doctor, I never felt so lonely. No matter who else was in the room, I was alone inside my head with my fears.
On the morning of my mastectomy, the isolation increased exponentially. Not one person in that room was facing what I was facing, not one of them was experiencing my fear. They were consummate professionals and I was an unwilling visitor among them who didn't speak the language.
All that isolation vanished when I found other survivors. And no where did I find more survivors and less isolation than at my first American Cancer Society Relay for Life. One year ago this weekend, on National Cancer Survivors Day, I walked the survivors' lap and was overwhelmed with the opposite of isolation. I can't describe it any better than I did in the post I wrote after that walk:
We started walking and all of the family members and supporters lined the track to cheer us on. And I do mean cheer! They were clapping, shouting, and yelling. I was a bit embarrassed, so I didn’t look over at the crowd initially. But, as soon as I got up the nerve, I was greatly rewarded. Person after person made direct eye contact with me and cheered, if only for a second, just for me. Now, I’m from the East Coast, we don’t make eye contact with people we don’t know. But here were hundreds of people cheering, not just for their own family member, but also for each one of us – letting us know how much they supported and appreciated our struggle.
There has been only one other time in my life when I experienced such solidarity from complete strangers. It was after 9/11. Being from the East Coast, and specifically from New Jersey, we suffered a lot of personal loss that day. We lost people who were our family, friends, and neighbors. My family lost a very beautiful friend (my husband’s very close friend from high school). We also lost a neighbor, and two women we know lost their children. A few days after 9/11, we were driving on an interstate highway. I was sitting in the passenger seat, looking dolefully out the window. A car drove up beside us in the adjacent lane. A woman was driving. She looked at me, dead in the eyes, and she gave me a sad smile. I gave her the same smile. It was a moment of sharing and support that I will never forget.
In that second, moving at 65 mph on an interstate highway, that woman and I supported each other in our sadness. We both understood what the other was feeling, despite our being strangers. In that regard, we did in fact know each other. In that regard, we were united. I felt that same level of knowing when I walked that track. I felt equally united with every person cheering. We are in this together, because we have suffered together. We know what’s at stake, because we have suffered comparable losses. We have the very good fortune, however, to have each other.
This post is sponsored by the ACS, which gave me this beautiful experience of solidarity. I will always remember it as an overwhelming moment of support and love. Whatever you have planned for National Cancer Survivors Day this Sunday, consider spending it with other survivors at an ACS Relay for Life event. You will be forever glad that you did.