Stay home. Relax. And get better, they say. But how do you do that when you have cancer and your deepest desire isn’t to relax alone at home but to live a normal life and still be a part of a team?
Natalie has cancer. She is 27 years old and recently hired in her first real job. She just started chemotherapy. Everyone feels sorry for her. It is sad. But what’s most tragic is that the people who ought to be supporting her are actually upsetting her. They exclude her from their lives.
Natalie’s discharge from work came with a message about taking good care of herself. “Take some time off, stay home, relax and get better,” was written inside the card accompanying the bouquet that the boss presented her. The flowers faded quickly, but she saved the card. The gesture was sweet of them. Natalie is grateful to have sick leave — she knows not everyone has the security of that benfit.
But, inside, Natalie feels she is fading too, and not due just to the chemo. Suddenly, everything in her life is about cancer, chemo and nausea. She’s never free. When she was still working, she felt a reprieve from the illness as strategy meetings, complicated cases and emails demanded her focus. And she loved it. For a few moments, she was liberated from focusing on the fact of the cancer. Now it is the sole thing she can think about.
Natalie’s life has transformed into a bubble of disease sealed off from the rest of the world, and she hates it. She’s no longer Natalie, but a cancer patient. When her friends and family visit, they ask about nothing other than the disease. There is nothing else to ask about. The stretches between their visits have also become longer and longer. Natalie understands why — she doesn’t want to talk about cancer either. But since that’s all she’s experiencing, what else does she have to converse about?
As time passes, she becomes increasingly depressed. The chemo gets harder and harder for her to take. One day, she calls her boss and asks him for permanent sick leave. Natalie never makes it back to work.
Lets show them that the team still includes them.
Perhaps you know Natalie. Perhaps you are her colleague, friend or sister. Now you are aware of what it’s like for her. The more you try to protect her from life, the worse she gets. We humans are created to be part of a community. The most dangerous thing for us is the feeling of being alone. Since the beginning of time, humans have feared isolation. That’s why we punish people with imprisonment and isolation. That’s also the reason why unruly children are sent to their rooms. And it’s why faulty integration programs can become dangerous. People who feel excluded can become extremists. (What I am saying is relevant for politics and global affairs too.)
But my point is that how you relate to someone who is in the midst of a crisis makes a world of difference. Do you just let him or her go? Do you fail to ask how things are going? Are you afraid of making the person even more sad? Or do you remember to say “good morning” and smile exactly as you did before the crisis? This applies not only to cancer, but to other life crises — stresses, fires, divorces — as well.
When I had cancer, I shared a hospital room with Natalie. I saw what happened to her when she lost the signposts of her life and when the visitors ebbed away. She no longer felt part of the team that she had taken on the world with before. She wasn’t even given a spot on the bench as a consolation prize.
Our respective courses of treatment ended up being very different. As her blood tests showed poorer and poorer results, doctors had to postpone her chemotherapy and the disease began to bloom. Meanwhile, Natalie faded further. One day the decision was made to stop the treatment.
Natalie’s story shows how important it is to hold onto people who are having difficulty — even if you don’t think it will make a difference. It may not be a cure. Saying a warm “good morning” certainly doesn’t remove the challenges that someone must face. People will continue to get cancer no matter what you say to them. They will still go on to be divorced. And they will still undergo stress. But there is no doubt that being included matters in how someone copes with their crisis. And with their treatments — the very thing that has the possibility to make them healthy again.
Inclusion is not equal to healing. Nor does exclusion equal illness. But everyone does better struggling through a hard time when they know they are part of a team. So lets show them that the team still includes them.