Back in January, just before I’d started chemotherapy, I’d been talking to my friend Adrianna about cold caps, the beanie of ice that sits atop your head and (hopefully) prevents your hair from falling out during treatment. Expensive and painful, I wasn’t too sure it was for me, but this was the stage when I was researching, frantically Googling and considering anything and everything. I had no idea what I was in for.
Via email, Adrianna introduced me to her friend Casey, who had worn the cap and preserved most of her hair during a second bout with cancer.
Only five minutes after I’d emailed Casey, I had a response.
“Margit. I wanna come over asap. When works?”
And two days later, there she was, sitting on my couch, counseling me — a beautiful, earthy soul with colorful bracelets and talismans about her neck and wrists, moving gingerly, still recovering from recent treatment. Her hair was thin, but there it was. She handed me a pretty cloth bag filled with sugar-free gum, savory Kind bars, pastilles and other goodies.
“These were the things that got me through,” she said. “I wanted you to have them before you started.”
I wept immediately. I’d just met Casey, and here she was, sitting for two hours in my home, answering my raft of questions, passing on hard-won wisdom. We talked about alternative therapies, the mushrooms she swore by, books I needed to have on my shelf, how to deal with the pain I had yet to experience.
These random acts of kindness — from strangers and longtime friends — may have been the single best things that got me through treatment. I learned quickly that as much as I needed the delicious carrot ginger soup, the thoughtfulness, hugs and laughs mattered even more. Spinning on a stool in my chemo room to make me laugh, coming by to trim our tree as I recovered from surgery #1, stopping by to make some spanakopita in my oven, even offering to clean out my fridge. Did I mention there are benefits to this horrible ride??
While I feel incredibly lucky to have such good pals nearby (willing to Purell their hands for a visit) and an unflaggingly supportive husband who kept me sane, even at my most devastated moments, I was truly heartened and surprised by the generosity of fellow cancer patients and survivors.
A neighboring cancer patient at NYU Langone, who had been getting chemotherapy for five years (FIVE YEARS — it boggles my mind), sat with me in my little treatment cubby and patiently talked to me for an hour about the pros and cons of ports, PICC lines and catheters.
Cancer survivor friends-of-friends emailed me their ultra-detailed lists of “must-haves” — from the Cancer-Fighting Kitchen Cookbook (which became my bible) to nausea-fighting tips to “use bamboo or wooden utensils; it actually helps when food starts to taste metallic.”
“You will suddenly have insight on the subway into the insane number of women who wear wigs for fun. They exist.”
An acquaintance I knew from an email group I belong to shared detailed wig advice that was practical and metaphysical including, “You will suddenly have insight on the subway into the insane number of women who wear wigs for fun. They exist. It’s different when it is a choice, but NO ONE needs to know it’s not unless you want them to know.”
It’s this wisdom from those who’d gone before that you really trust, the stuff you keep as a running tab in your iPhone notes or close by in a bedside notebook.
And then there are the friends who just seem preternaturally aware of what you really need.
My friend Karen, who I’d only known for a few years but lived only a few blocks away, became a sudden super ally — she was the one who hustled to get my head buzzed when my hair started falling out and organized a Meal Train during my surgeries and chemo. She also came by and “babysat” me while my husband was on a work trip. Sitting by my bedside, she and I laughed through episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Difficult People together. I will never forget those moments of joy.
Friends in the neighborhood — and some a long drive away — brought homemade soups and lasagnas or ordered food to be delivered. My officemate Amy, who had a baby on the same day I had surgery, found time to bring by a care package of post-surgery items like magazines, prune juice and Colace.
She texted me: “These are unglamorous post-surgery items that will be helpful that nobody else will probably want to buy. Like stuff to help you poop ;)”
Even the people I worked with came through. One friend offered to help manage a client project at a cheaper than normal rate so I could continue to keep working while going through chemo — a financial godsend. Others volunteered to act as editor and write the editor’s note for this very site. Thank you, Stacy, Ann, Karen, Rachel and Rachel. The entire TueNight team went above and beyond to keep the ship afloat. Thank you, Adrianna, Justine and Darian.
I found great solace in online conversations, lying in bed with my phone when I couldn’t do much of anything else. Nora York, a six-foot tall jazz singer I’d written about in the ‘90s and connected with in the ‘00s when we discovered we went to the same hairstylist, reconnected with me again as she, too, was going through treatment and a long, difficult bout with pancreatic cancer. We’d message each other little bits of encouragement, even though we never actually connected by phone or in person.
Sadly, after not hearing from her for a few months, I learned that Nora had passed away. I was gutted. In my last exchange with Nora, I’d asked her how she could get up and out of bed to perform. I couldn’t even imagine it.
“I’m very tired, “ she wrote, “but being in the world helps me. And the kind of tired is not chemo tired. Today, I’m couch bound, but I’ve got rehearsal tonight. Lots of car services etc. I guess the difference is that there’s no cure (so far) for pancreatic (the kind I have), so if I don’t live my life while I’m being treated, I’ll miss out on my life.
Let’s talk soon. Xoxo n”
She knew she had a short time to live, and she was living life to its absolute fullest and sharing with me in the meantime.
Cancer plays muse to your mortality, and, if you’re lucky enough to survive it, it becomes clear you have a duty — and desire —to help others. It’s part of cancer culture, and it’s not something you give a second thought to.
“It turned out to be one of the best places to vent, celebrate and sometimes mourn — with people who understood you 100%. A little secret tribe of support.”
As I was finishing my own chemo, I learned another friend, a beauty blogger, had endometrial cancer. I felt an urgent need to help her, to share what I’d learned. We sent Twitter and Facebook messages to each other, compared doctors (both at NYU), talked about vitamins and hemoglobin levels. I hope I helped her, however, she was probably also pleased that I asked her for some beauty advice and ended loading, like, six beauty products into my Sephora basket. So there was that.
I also started a Facebook group for women writers with cancer, knowing that we could be inspired by each other’s writing. That happened, but it also turned out to be one of the best places to vent, celebrate and sometimes mourn — with people who understood you 100%. A little secret tribe of support.
One of the first people I’d invited to that group was Jennifer, a Florida-based fellow writer and someone I knew from afar before we both got cancer around the same time — hers in her breast. We stayed in good touch via that group and became closer friends in the meantime, sharing symptoms and cursing our side effects. Her treatment included radiation (mine didn’t) and went on much longer than my own. In fact, she just finished a week ago.
So I was shocked and elated when she told me she was going to attend our upcoming live TueNight event in Brooklyn.
“Spontaneity lives!” she wrote on Facebook, “I just bought a plane ticket and a ticket to go to Pussy Party! So excited to be there and see you….”
As I was reading the message, I burst into tears. An unbelievably beautiful gesture. And I can’t wait to see my friend.
While I’d never wish the Big C on anyone, it has its strange side benefits. For my new friend Casey, it gave her “crazy courage.” For me, it opened my eyes to the generosity of spirit that can come from friends and total strangers and even myself.
So I want to say thank you.
Thank you to the scores of people who selflessly helped me get by. I hope I can give back as much as you gave me.