Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cancer and connection

Cancer challenges you in every possible way. But it’s also a moment when you realize how good people can be, and how much you need them. This has been a central part of my experience over these past months, and I want to describe it well enough to do it justice; but before I start I have to say that the problem with giving examples is the risk, the inevitability, of leaving out many others. I am grateful to many, many people for their support, and I can only refer to some of them here. 

My students last fall gave me a giant get-well-soon card that they’d all signed (along with the professor during whose class the card was passed around). Meanwhile the school authorized me to give an all-multiple-choice final exam – which made my grading season vastly easier and also incidentally allowed me to learn about the potential value of this kind of exam compared to my usual essay questions – and my students accepted this change in exam practice graciously too. The New York Law School Law Review, patiently awaiting my edits on a forthcoming article, sent me flowers. Colleagues from every part of the school ask how they can help. 

Members of my synagogue have organized themselves to bring us a meal each week on the evening after we get back from each chemotherapy treatment in New York – and even on the off-weeks! We didn’t really understand how much of a relief it would be to not have to come home on these days and prepare a meal, or how deep a personal message we would feel from each of these families’ reaching out to us this way.

Other friends, near and far, have brought meals, sent food, gotten us books – from serious to frivolous, both appreciated – and come by to say hi or go for walks with me. Or they’ve called or emailed or messaged me on Facebook. Several, including friends from the law school, have shared with me their own experiences with cancer, either from earlier in their lives or from right now, and these discussions have meant a lot to me while also reminding me, again, how many people there are who have encountered this disease.

My family members have been at my side in every way. My three children have all accompanied me to chemotherapy sessions, traced the ups and downs of my treatment with me, hung out with me (always a pleasure, now even more so), and done everything we could think of to ask them to do. My sisters have travelled to see me, in the midst of their own busy lives. My in-laws -- what a formal term for my sisters' husbands, my older son's wife, and my wife's mom -- have all been loving and attentive. My cousins have offered all sorts of support, from good wishes to connections with medical experts. My niece is crocheting for me! And I could go on ...

It’s a cliché to say that a grave illness forces you to take stock of what’s really important, yet it’s true. So certainly all of this human kindness makes me understand better how important people are to me. But that sounds very abstract. Maybe this is more to the point: in a way I feel that I have more family and more friends than I did before, not because the actual numbers have changed but because my sense of our connection to each other has.

I haven’t yet spoken about Teresa, my wife. But really she and I have battled this disease together at every stage. Teresa keeps track of my medications (I have about 8 different ones now, all in one way or another easing the impact of the cancer or the chemotherapy). She makes our meals – though at least I can report that I do some of the dishes again, after slacking off entirely in the first month or so of my treatment – and each day devises a protein shake that supplies energy that I very much need. She studies the information on the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation website, so she knows more about my disease than I do. She sings songs and does cheers. And she is with me every step of the way. As we’ve gotten more used to the disease and its treatment, we’ve both begun to return to our offices more – but actually we’ve spent more time together, day by day, in the months since we began dealing with my illness than we’d ever been able to do for so long before. That’s been sustaining, therapeutic, and … fun!

I wouldn't want to fight cancer alone. I couldn’t imagine having gone through these months without the love and affection that all these people -- and others! -- have given me, and that I’ve felt for them. I wish I didn’t have cancer, of course, but having cancer has not made me unhappy. Actually, it has made me feel connected and loved.

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