Close call brings newfound empathy

Published 11:45 pm Friday, April 10, 2009

Growing up I heard a lot about cancer. Watching a lot of television, it was kind of hard to avoid. Even on the sitcoms that became staples in my viewing schedule, the issue was regularly dealt with by the fictional families that mimicked real life, or some comedically exaggerated version of it.

I heard statistics and sayings all the time about the number of people who are affected by cancer. The one that always stuck in my mind was simple. It went something like this.

“Everyone has a loved one or knows someone who is battling or has battled cancer.”

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That one stuck for one simple reason. It didn’t apply to me. I wasn’t disputing the validity of the claim. I just naturally assumed that I was the exception that proved the rule.

Such was life. I sympathized with the plight of television families. I felt like I should have some measure of respect for those who struggled with the disease and for those organizations and individuals who sought to contribute in some way to the discovery of a cure.

And, as far as I knew in my finite understanding, I met that simple criteria of being a decent human being.

But there’s a difference in sympathy and empathy. What I felt, at best, was sympathy for the disease and those affected by it.

Then, I had an aunt diagnosed with breast cancer. That was a little tough to swallow. For the first time, some version of this indiscriminate disease touched the life of someone I knew and loved.

She battled and overcame. I saw some of the impact it had on her. But still, I went on about my life, largely consumed with the trivial matters contained therein.

Not long after that, my girlfriend at the time was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I held her hand as she worried. I sat in doctor’s offices and hospital waiting rooms with her as she went through her plight.

That registered. That was significant. And, while the aforementioned “statistic” was validated in my life, I still came through largely unscathed, as she recovered rather quickly and we later parted ways.

Then came the one that really made an impact. The last few weeks in my family have been consumed with anxiety as we waited to find out whether or not my mom’s irregularity would be diagnosed as breast cancer.

Thankfully, it was not. Nonetheless, it was far too close for comfort. Now she is faced with some decisions regarding potential pre-emptive measures as her clean diagnosis also carried with it the revelation that she is considered at high risk for cancer in the future.

And there it was. It was real. It was rattling. It was more than a 30-minute comedic representation by a fictitious family can relay. Suddenly, I found myself listening to and seeking out advice and insights from survivors and family members of survivors. It is not an exclusive club as the disease is no respecter of persons. But it is still a club to which I never wanted anyone I know and love to be admitted.