Words from Alison…
“Denial is how I live with watching a friend, who I consider family, fight terminal lung cancer. In her mid 70s my grandmother died of emphysema, which accompanied her lung cancer. My grandmother, my favorite relative, was a life long smoker. Her cancer was horrible, awful news, but not surprising. Kim, my physically fit, younger than me, 30-something friend, being diagnosed with lung cancer – that was a terrible, unbelievable shock.
I need to process and communicate about emotional events. Since Kim’s diagnosis in 2011 I’ve been grateful for her openness and directness about her disease, her treatment, her struggles, her fight, and her advocacy. I’m grateful that I can say, “this might be a stupid question, but…” I’m grateful that she has the patience to explain, or re-explain, to me the complexities of her cancer. We’ve also had a few conversations about death and dying – I’ve had “what does it all mean” death and after-life discussions with friends previously, but it is an entirely different experience talking with someone who is facing their mortality in a way that I am not. I sometimes start sentences with “Please tell me if this offends you…” or “I used to think that…” I don’t remember all of the details of these conversations with Kim, but what I do remember is that our dialogue was heart-felt and authentic. Kim’s fight has provided new meaning to the idea that “life is short.” It’s made me re-examine my life and ensure that my energy and resources are going into the people and things that are important to me. Selfishly, I’m grateful to Kim for that perspective (but I also think she’d be happy to know she’s contributed to my life in that way).
So where does denial come in? I can intellectually process that Kim has cancer, that she has been taking a daily chemotherapy drug and anti-nausea medication, that she is about to switch to a new treatment because she has tumor growth. Probably like the thousands of other people affected by loved ones with cancer, I operate on the belief that Kim is going to surpass expectations for longevity and treatment and be in my life for years. My coping mechanism is challenged, however, when (cancer sucks!) things happen like whole brain radiation. The brain tumors were a rude awakening because I had my friend: she was climbing, we were doing fun things – I had comfortably settled into a mindset of “Kim can fight this.” And then cancer reminded all of us that it was still there.
I’m not okay knowing that sooner than I want it to happen my friend is going to die. But I have now with Kim, and what’s most important for me is to be present with her now and help support her in her fight – that helps me believe that I will have her in my life for a longer period of time.