First my friend got the bad news - a recurrence of breast cancer after 14 years. The treatment? A mastectomy followed by hormone therapy.
Before operating, the doctors wanted to make sure she was cancer-free everywhere else. If the bad cells had migrated to other parts of her body they would re-evaluate their treatment plan.
We waited for the results of the various scans. The bone scan came back clear. We cheered. Other tests came in negative. More celebration.
The next day, I was on my way up to visit my friend for a long weekend. Her husband is one of my writing clients, and we had planned this trip long before her diagnosis. When I arrived, he blurted out, "The cancer has spread to her lungs - both lungs all lobes."
The growths in the lungs did not look like lung cancer, so the doctors deduced that it was probably metastatic breast cancer.
My friend and I stayed up late that night having the first of many sobering conversations. We drifted into a familiar subject: what we hoped to do someday. We're both great procrastinators.
"I realize that 'someday' has disappeared for me," she said. "I no longer can say things like, 'Someday I'll take that trip with my son. Someday I'll draw. Someday, I'll do the writing I've been wanting to do for so many years."
The next morning we were able to schedule a needle biopsy for that afternoon. As my friend lay on a gurney waiting to go into surgery, we talked to a nurse.
"It's shocking," my friend said, "how fast the future can get wiped out." Without missing a beat, the nurse replied with the same inane formulation I would hear many times during the next few weeks. I gave it a name: the "What Not to Say" cliché.
"Well, we're all going to die some day," the nurse said. "I could get hit by a bus when I walk out of here."
I didn't want to upset my friend - she was rattled enough - so I didn't tell the nurse what was on my mind. "Yeah, you might get hit by a bus, but the bus has already hit my friend. It's just a matter of how long she'll survive the blow."
Please. When someone gets awful news, go out of your way to avoid those pat statements. Do not undermine the seriousness of the situation. Don't flatten it to the status of "something we all face in one way or another." This person is facing death, like, right now. You and I do not know how that feels.
Why do people insist on popping out these bromides when someone is actually staring straight into the face of darkness? There's always a reason, and I believe this is one situation where we, the "healthy," feel intensely uncomfortable facing hopelessness and despair. So we level the playing field saying, in effect, "your situation isn't as special as you feel it is right now. We're all dying: you're just doing it now, rather than later."
Of course we're all going to die. But that's no reason to belittle the tragedy with superfluous remarks. They only comfort you, certainly not your friend. Shake your head. Say you're sorry. Be a witness, not a jerk.
I canceled my return trip and we waited for the biopsy results. My friend and I took daily walks. I can't tell you how many people said it: "Well, we're all going to die." Or, "Happens to the best of us, you know." Or, "It could be me tomorrow." I wanted to slug them all.
A week later, I helped my friend dress for the appointment with the oncologist where we would receive, as my friend said, "the death sentence." "Can't wear that top; it's too cheerful," she said. "This one is too drab." After all, she was picking the outfit in which she was going to receive the worst news of her life.
She and her husband went in to see the doctor first. Another friend and I waited outside, swallowing, and trying to seem calm. A minute later our friend burst open the examining room door and beckoned to us. "Come in! Come in!"
The needle biopsy, it turned out, was negative.
What? We had to hear it again. The surgery had revealed that indeed she did not have cancer in her lungs, but another condition altogether, rare but not life-threatening.
She was silent in the car, her eyes focused on nothing. Then her face brightened and she looked at us, beaming, and said. "Maybe I'll have 'someday' after all."