So Alone.

Our block in San Francisco could start its own cancer support group! Within 100 yards of sidewalk, we’ve got two breast cancer survivors, one lung cancer patient and one bile duct cancer patient.

A couple days ago, I noticed all three of the other cancer patients chatting on the sidewalk. After a few minutes, one of them came up to me. He’s a retired dentist and used to be friendly with my Dad before he died of lung cancer almost 16 years ago. We’ve never actually spoken, but he came up to me that day with a smile, and said, “We have something in common.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that you have cancer,” I said. “How are you?”

“Not good,” he said in a very tired voice. “They only gave me a few months to live, but it’s been three years. My cancer is very rare, but I went back to China to get both traditional Chinese medicine treatment, and modern treatment.”

We chatted for about half an hour. He’s never been in a support group. He doesn’t really have many people to talk to about his disease. As he continued on his daily walk, I noticed how gingerly he stepped down the sidewalk, how washed out he seemed. And yet, he must have steel within to survive so long.

How different it is to have had an obscenely common cancer. Here we are in the Pink Month of Breast Cancer Awareness and everyone is walking, running, signing petitions and making symbolic gestures of support. The teenage daughter of an old friend shaved her head in solidarity this month. As cynical as I am about pink ribbons, I think that’s pretty cool.

But no one is running for bile duct cancer, this neighbor’s affliction. I can’t imagine anything more isolating than having a rare form of cancer: Little research, no community, only your own strength to sustain you.

I suggested he look for an on-line community, but he said most people with his kind of cancer don’t live more than a year. Not much time to link up on the Internet.

How alone my neighbor is. I hope we talk again soon.

About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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5 Responses to So Alone.

  1. kymlucas says:

    I agree with you somewhat about the sea of pink. As a survivor of breast cancer, I’m all for raising awareness about it, but we need to be raising awareness of ALL type of the disease, not just breast. My friend just finished chemo for ovarian cancer. Where were the teal ribbons for her during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (September)? I’ll find one somewhere because she’s going to do a guest post on my blog. I saw a t-shirt somewhere that said something about it not mattering what color the ribbon is, and that’s how I feel.

    Thanks for an excellent post.

  2. kirsten says:

    Super easy way to fight cancer with social media. Pass it on.

  3. kissmeteet says:

    Just thought Id pop in and see how you are doing? Hope all is well and you are living life to the fullness xxx

  4. Thank you for sharing your neighbor’s experience. Bile duct cancer IS rare. You are right, it is important to be aware of all the “orphan” cancers…those that do not have the big foundations literally “running” to help out.

  5. Yeah, as someone diagnosed with Type II endometrial cancer just a few weeks ago, I’m becoming aware of just how ‘breast-centric’ cancer seems. Boobs are sexy. Pink ribbons, lacy bras, slick TV ads. Squidgy yucky girl bits? Not so much. Bile ducts? Jeez, even worse. I wish I could be more supportive and optimistic and community spirited. But right now, all I can feel is: cancer sucks. It doesn’t matter what part of the body it decides to kill you through.

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