When I picked up the phone I could hear palpable fear in her voice.
“My husband went in to have a growth on his back removed and the lab came back saying he has squamous cell cancer. They couldn’t get it all because it went deeper than they thought. One doctor said might be lung cancer. We can’t see the oncologist until two days from now.”
“This really sucks,” I replied, remembering too well exactly what she was feeling. Five years ago, when I heard, “You have a nasty cancer, Craig,” I began falling headlong into a bottomless abyss of fear, and and worse, an overwhelming premonition of death. Even though the cancer was her husband’s, my friend was now falling into the same bottomless pit.
In her May 2013 New York Times op ed describing her decision to have a preemptive mastectomy, Angelina Jolie remarked, “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness.” As indeed it does, even though tremendous strides have been made in reducing cancer death rates, and most survivors now live for years following diagnosis and treatment. Angelina Jolie, my friend, and I each suffered from what, in 1955, oncologist George Crile Jr. defined as “Cancer Phobia.” Even though more people in the US die of heart disease each year, it is the word “cancer” that inspires dread. (A dread that too often leads to over-treatment, but that is the topic of a different post.)
As our phone conversation continued, my friend revealed that she’d already been on the Internet, which was confirming her worst fears of already metastasized cancer. I told her that while I was no doctor, cancer can take many forms, and that it was way too early to assume the worst.
The urge to head immediately to the wild kingdom of the Internet is a natural reaction to cancer’s awful reality. The Internet is as near as the smartphone in our hand, and it’s something tangible we can do to educate ourselves…fast. We hope we’ll find something positive to grab onto in order to slow our fall into the abyss.
If you type “squamous cell cancer” into Google, you get “about 2,380,000 results.” Where to even start? This huge number is proof that in this mind-boggling surfeit of information, finding gold among the dross is a challenging task at best. Worse, our already fragile frame of mind seems to make the most pessimistic scenarios leap right off the screen first–even at otherwise reliable web sites. And accidentally encountering the story of the painful end game of some poor soul with the cancer you just googled only accelerates the descent into blackness.
We live in the era of the “always-on” 24-hour news cycle, cable TV talking heads, not to mention the twittering and posting of social media–all adding up to significant information overload. That overload can be endurable if it’s about stuff that doesn’t affect us personally. We change the channel or scroll down to the next post. But cancer that comes close to us is something else entirely. More information tends to amplify, rather than diminish, our fears because we feel even more intensely and deeply that loss of control that always accompanies the word “cancer.”
What to do? It’s a difficult prescription, but staying off the Internet is probably the best course in the short term. Let the shock of the news you’ve just heard have its way with you for a while. Take a deep breath…take several deep breaths.
Then, find another human being to talk with. Obviously, you’ll shortly need to have an in-depth conversation with a knowledgeable physician, preferably an oncologist. But even before that, while you absorb cancer’s sudden intrusion, try to find a non-medical “civilian” to talk to.
Face-to-face contact with other humans is the antidote because it is only when you look each other in the eyes that you come to realize that at this moment we need human connection infinitely more than we need information. When that other face is someone who is a bit farther down the cancer path, that’s even better. Because he or she has also fallen into the same abyss, and knows too well that dread, fear, and feeling of doom. But that friend also knows that the abyss is really not bottomless. The all-consuming dread will eventually be replaced by a glimmer of hope.
As my friend texted me a few hours after our conversation, “Looking up stuff on the Internet…….. Not recommended unless you want to scare yourself.”