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Connecting Through Cancer

A Heavy Topic Brings Clarity Through Communication Between Strangers

One of my brothers was diagnosed with Leukemia around age five. At the time of his diagnosis, I would have been around seven years old. For both of us, that meant growing up and spending a lot of time in hospitals, clinics, and waiting rooms. 

Obviously, my viewpoint was much different than his:he had to do all the hard work and go through the challenges that come with treating cancer. Most of my time was spent in the waiting room while he had tests done, blood drawn, chemo administered, and I'm sure a host of other procedures.  

His prognosis was good and he beat cancer. He has been in remission for over a couple of decades and will celebrate his 30th birthday in a few months. 

Through my brother's cancer, he and I both had a unique childhood experience. This experience would shape who we are today and give us unexpected connections to strangers. 

In 2008, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English, I found myself working retail at a major bookseller. I was surrounded by an amazingly intelligent and creative group of individuals. My coworkers made that job an unforgettable experience. A customer at that job also made the few years I worked at that book store worth it.

It was a quiet night, I was working a closing shift as cashier and spending most of the last couple hours cleaning the desk and organizing books around the register area. Much of the store was experiencing the same; not much activity, except for the occasional browser. 

A woman appeared cradling an impressive pile of books in her hands. She was alone and had spent a good deal of time picking out the books that I was now scanning into the register. These books came from several different departments in the store, children's, health, and medical, but they all covered the same topic: Cancer.

After I gave her my usual speech about our membership card and discounts, I paused and asked a question that could have been prying. 

"Sorry, but I have to ask, did someone get diagnosed with cancer?" I asked, ringing up and bagging the remaining titles. 

"Yes, my niece. She was diagnosed with Leukemia. I am trying to learn everything I can about it," the woman said. She was warm, and seemed grateful that I had asked. 

I took this as a chance to tell my brother's story. I told her about the diagnosis, about how long ago it had been and how long he had now been in remission. I told her about the things I saw cancer do; him losing his hair in fervent patches over the house, him being bloated and uncomfortable from all the medications, his Portacath, his strength and his humor throughout it all. 

In all honesty, it kind of spilled out of me. I felt like maybe I was telling this poor woman who had just gotten terrible news far too much information, but she listened intently, with glassy eyes and she thanked me endlessly for sharing my story. Really, my brother's story. 

We talked at length, a gift of the store being so empty on a weeknight, and she ended up leaving in seemingly higher spirits than when she entered my line to check out. The exchange certainly made my night. I was able to tell this woman a first hand survivor story about something that she had just been learning about. I had given her hope in a sea of "what-ifs" and "what nows?"

For some reason, that woman's and mine paths crossed that night, and it was such a powerful moment that I will never forget it. Will I ever see her again? Probably not. But I know, deep within the chasm of humanity, that we both saved each other a little bit that night and our lives are that much better for it. 

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