10 years | The paradoxical emotions felt when a loved one fights cancer.
Today marks 10 years since one of my best friends in the world was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.
10 years since she had to cancel singing “Falling Slowly” from Once with me at a school coffeehouse to go to the hospital for what we thought was a persisting sports injury. 10 years since I stood in my kitchen, almost premonitionally avoiding eye contact with my mother before she said she had to tell me something. 10 years since she said “it’s cancer,” since I said “what? oh my God, oh my God.” 10 years since I had to brace the news to my sister who was away at college, to my close friends, and to try to relay through a fabricated strength what I knew about the diagnosis to a family on speaker phone.
It starts with obvious, straightforward emotions: fear and sadness. I’m afraid of what she’s going to have to go through. I’m sad she’s missing a crucial chunk of high school. I’m afraid she won’t survive this. And while those emotions are heavy, they’re graspable.
The tricky part comes when you witness and feel yourself the paradoxical emotions. And now reflecting, I think the feeling behind the driver’s seat of those conflicting sentiments was always guilt.
This isn’t happening to you. This is happening to her.
Guilt made fear and sadness feel wrong —like I didn’t deserve the right to those emotions.
At those first few weeks at school without her, I felt guilty when I laughed in class, had fun with friends, or forgot about what was going on for one second.
And then, after guilt not only knitted me this cape of weak strength, it made me feel guilty for feeling good about wearing it.
What can I do? How can I be helpful? But, how can I do it in a way where I don’t have to ask anyone? Or with no one seeing me do it?
This extra selfless selflessness felt almost as icky as the selflessness that was unabashedly ostentatiousness. I mean, thank God social media wasn’t as pervasive then as it is now. The thought of people who were peripherally friends with Carley posting Instagram stories of the one photo they have together asking for prayers and ~good vibes~ makes me sick.
But guilt still prevailed! Because I felt guilty of judging others, of thinking of myself as the morality police, and for even thinking about anyone or anything but Carley.
I also remember guilt taunting me for liking the feeling of being needed.
The bulk of her chemo rounds were in the summer when the crowds of people, air hocky playing in the teen room (I actually remember my arm being sore from all the air hocky), and balloon and flower deliveries died down. And although of course it was a fearfully sad time, I remember those quieter moments of watching Singin’ in the Rain in the hospital room, eating fro yo (remember that trend)? and gossiping about classmates, and joking about getting the cute guy from down the hall to “BYOC” (bring his own chemo), very fondly.
Carley is very independent and stubborn (why we are best friends) so her being vulnerable and asking for help during this time made me feel good. And then I felt guilty again! Haha!
Guilt is largely a nonconstructive emotion, but it felt nearly impossible not to feel it when your best friend was going through chemo and radiation.
I asked Carley if it was ok to write something today and she said to please do saying: “I’ve said it a million ties, I think everyone around me had it way harder than I did” which I think is very gracious and generous of her, but also I don’t totally agree and it makes me feel guilty again….and we’re back!!
But it’s important to remember that guilt, at least in a situation where you haven’t done anything wrong, is only being inflicted and exacerbated by the one experiencing it. Guilt is almost, selfish? So, maybe you can guilt your way out of feeling guilty?
You see the endlessly paradoxical nature of this, yeah?
I wanted to share my personal experience for anyone who has or who had a loved one go through cancer treatment, and for anyone on the periphery of cancer, crisis, or tragedy, to show that all of these conflicting feelings are normal.
And reflecting today on this milestone, this is what I’ve learned since then:
Guilt is pervasive and not constructive.
You’re probably like, yeah I get that guilt is a big part of this by now, thx! But really, feel what you feel, but know that continuing to feel guilty is as nonconstructive as feeling resentful.
Be helpful, but also, get out of the way.
When a crisis happens, everyone wants to help. And that knee jerk, human reaction is beautiful! But ask yourself: will my help truly be productive or am I just trying to feel better about myself? I don’t know if any selfless act is truly selfless, (as we know, Phoebe and Joey debated this topic ad nauseam on Friends), but there’s a balance and it’s more about being self-aware of your role in someone’s life and in their tragedy.
The more you allow your feelings to matter, the larger capacity you will have for empathy.
I was reminded of this in Brene Brown’s new podcast “Unlocking Us.” She was talking about the current crisis, and how yes, those of us that are well off need to recognize our privilege (I personally have never felt the weight of this more), but it is also so important to allow ourselves to grieve the wedding we didn’t get to have, the school musical we didn’t get to be in, or the trip we didn’t get to take. I didn’t have cancer, no. But I was directly affected by it. Perspective is grace-giving, but so is validating how you feel.
Coronavirus halted this process (and I’m allowing myself to feel sad about it!!!) but before quarantine, I was working on an anthem for Carley’s foundation (Rutledge Cancer) that I will keep you all updated on. I didn’t originally start writing it for the purpose it holds now, and I think (and hope) that that fact will make it more universally relatable and encouraging.
It’s for cancer patients, cancer survivors, anyone affected by cancer, disease, crisis, or anyone that has ever felt like hope and belief is a curse.
It will seek to be an anthem for the struggling and a financial raiser for the Rutledge Foundation.
update: the song is now out :)
Stream WINGS on Spotify (also on Apple and Amazon Music)
Here were Carley’s words about her 10-years-since-diagnosis milestone:
Both cards, cancer and survival, have weighed on me equally. They are two separate monkeys on my back. When diagnosed you learn quickly how to be a patient. Nurses show you how to move when prodded, doctors tell you how to act and behave, family supports you no matter what because you’re sick. But what about when you get better? No doctors tell you how to be a survivor. No nurses show you what to do. Not all family members understand or support your actions. Survivorship turned out to be extremely uncharted and dangerous territory.
During treatment most of your emotional homework involves turning your emotions off. Turning off happiness, so that you don’t get your hopes up about the uncertain future. Turning off fear, because you don’t want to give it too much hold over you. Turning off anger, because the people around mean well even though they are stressing you out. Turning off sadness, so that you don’t upset your loved ones.
Survivorship is about letting everything back in, and with it comes extreme highs and lows. Survivorship is confusing and extreme. Extreme sadness, confusing happiness. Extreme anxiety, confusing calm. Extreme appreciation for the people and things around you, confusing terror at losing them again. It’s like a baby learning to walk again, except this time you’re in college and nobody is there to tell if you’re doing it right. For me, walking again was hard and took me a while. So much of it was filled with laughter and joy, but I was also walking wounded. Cancer hurt me, it hurt my heart and soul and it hurt my body. It hurt me in ways I didn’t even know about. But I have been healing for 10 years, and many of my wounds have since scarred. Every day I get better at surviving. Every day I get stronger and happier and more whole. And today I’m lucky enough to say that I look forward to the future, I look happily back to my past, and I look around me every day with joy. Now I wonder, almost fearlessly, what cards I’ll draw next.
Carley Rutledge “survived thanks to a cutting edge clinical trial and endless prayers and support” to quote her mama’s Facebook status ❤
She lives in Denver filming, writing, graphic designing, and fighting for legislation that protects and supports those that suffer from infertility, especially her fellow cancer survivors.