Alison’s texts pinged our group chat soon after the pandemic hit. What was typically a running conversation between four friends about sheet pan recipes and workout apps now kicked into high gear. We urgently fumbled our way through a three-hour group FaceTime call to help her get through her mom’s surgery.
Sadly, Alison let us know the next day her mom didn’t recover and was being removed from life support. We collectively mourned with her and called each other to brainstorm how we could support our friend during this time. I sent flowers on behalf of the group and offered to have meals delivered.
After one of these calls, I hung up and crept into my walk-in closet, feeling like a hole had been drilled into my heart. As I began weeping bitterly, I told myself it was because I was sympathizing with Alison’s grief, on top of our now constant pandemic stress.
But deep down, I knew the truth: It was self-pity and resentment, roaring back from the past.
“Where were all of you when I had cancer?” I wanted to scream.
Since Alison’s urgent call for help, our group conversations had been filled with tears, phone calls, texts and prayers for our friend. But when I had needed these things, I felt deserted.
My Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis had come a year and a half earlier after a routine mammogram. I shared the news with a few close friends and family, who all responded with compassion and concern. My husband Kevin, a physician, was enormously supportive. But he and the kids were out of the house most days with work and school, whereas I had just lost my job as a part-time career counselor at a university. This left me with plenty of time to brood.
Between doctor appointments and carpool, I was on my own. I would lie in bed, doom scroll on the Internet, binge-watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” and feel sorry for myself. The staggering sadness, fear and disbelief I felt at my circumstances made sense. It was the boredom and loneliness which surprised and unsettled me.
I’m an introvert but one who craves human connection. I’m the sibling who reminds family to call each other on birthdays. The person who drops off pad thai for friends with a new baby and organizes girls’ weekends.
Perhaps that’s why I waited to be swarmed with nonstop calls, warm and fuzzy texts, post-surgery visits and homemade dinners after my diagnosis. A handful of close friends checked in periodically, but for the most part, nobody asked how I was doing unless I proactively sent an update. Then there were the “one and done” friends — after one call or text to say they were sorry to hear the news, I never heard from them again. I felt forgotten.
At a support group, I hid my scowl as another woman complained that she didn’t have the energy to respond to all the voice mails and gifts and had run out of space in her freezer for meals. Unlike me, she had posted about her diagnosis on social media, but this didn’t stop me from having cancer support FOMO.
When treatment ended, I found a new job and returned to “normal” life. I met deadlines, volunteered at school and made dinner party conversation. I was back to my socially acceptable and pleasant self, but it felt like I was watching my life go by, without being in it. The tumor was now gone, but the feelings of disappointment and inadequacy lingered.
When we visited family and my toddler nephews proudly ran over to show me their Lego creations, I responded with indifference instead of hugs. On a family camping trip, I retreated to bed early, while other parents stayed up socializing. It was confusing — I didn’t want to be alone, but I wanted to be left alone. I kept questioning my own worth. Was I worth having around? Did I only have value while happy and healthy, not sad and sick?
Then the coronavirus struck. Each day was filled with high anxiety. My husband started taking shifts at his work’s testing clinic and continued to see essential patients, even as personal protective equipment ran low. When he developed a hacking cough and fever, I slept on the sofa, left meals on the stairwell and tried to reassure the kids as he self-quarantined in our bedroom.
That same week, I listened sympathetically as Alison talked about pandemic-era funeral logistics and missing her mother’s cooking. I was jealous of the attention she was getting and felt ashamed and guilty for it. I knew my problems paled in comparison to what so many others were now facing.
Fortunately, Kevin’s test came back negative. I eventually emerged from the storm to see that texts and emails from friends and family were piling up, and I could barely keep up. Are you doing okay? How are you holding up with Kevin working at the clinic? How are the kids handling online school? Emails sharing links to the latest coronavirus news, rumors of when the school district would begin distance learning, and quarantine recipe exchanges all filled my inbox.
College housemates I hadn’t seen in 20 years organized a Zoom happy hour where we held up thick scrapbooks, photos falling from the sticky pages. I cringe-laughed during a high school reunion when an old friend recalled trembling in the back seat during my driver’s ed road test. The parents of our kids’ friends started a rotation of socially distanced, bring-your-own-everything outdoor gatherings. Despite having known them for almost a decade, this was the first time we hung out regularly without our teens.
Suddenly, I felt like the woman from my support group, and it dawned on me: It’s not that people didn’t care during my cancer treatments. Between family, work commitments and other responsibilities, it’s just easy sometimes to forget to prioritize friendships. But now, with the pause button pressed on everything from soccer games to long commutes, more friends were checking up on me than a year ago — and bringing over homemade sourdough bread to boot.
It’s almost as if the rest of the world understands what it’s like to have cancer — the constant stress and anxiety, the real fear of sickness and death. Except now, we can empathize with each other. There’s no stigma of being afraid, and we have time on our hands.
It might sound strange, but the friendship and support I’ve experienced in this pandemic life is exactly what I wanted my cancer life to be. For the first time in a long time, I feel valued and loved — whether it’s catching up with friends on Zoom or devoting time to my new volunteer work. I’m energized and reengaged. This sense of belonging has changed my mind-set and created a turning point in how I live. I want to keep the caring and the concern an active part of my life — and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
So, on a recent Friday evening after a long week, all I wanted to do was turn on the TV and zone out. But before I did, I took a moment to send a note to Alison. I wanted her to know I was thinking of her and am there for her.
Pandemic or not.