Health & Fitness

Frank talk about cancer connects loved ones

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When I learned recently that yet another friend had been diagnosed with cancer, I experienced my usual reaction: disbelief and sadness, followed by anger at Life In General. But for the first time, I also saw what these under-35 friends and family members have in common. They, or those they love, talk about their illness with a refreshing frankness.

They track their progress on personal blogs, engage in conversations about body fluids without darting their eyes and, overall, turn their experience into a motivational tool for others. This openness lets those of us watching from the outside feel more of their pain and, ultimately, more comfort.

They may live thousands of miles away, but I always feel a little closer when they share how they feel.

My first encounter with this frankness occurred several years ago when a college friend, Susie, then 24, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I learned of her illness shortly after losing a close girlfriend in a car accident, and I was horrified that I might lose her too. But Susie rambled on about how thyroid cancer was no big deal, that they'd just rip it out and kill it with radiation -- oh, but did she tell me about this awful stuff she has to drink? She recovered and is now a surgeon.

Another college friend, John, then a 29-year-old New York hedge fund analyst, opened up to a newspaper reporter for all the world to read. In the story, he talked about being a young person diagnosed with prostate cancer and the difficult decision of whether to bank his sperm before undergoing sterility-causing surgery or look into other treatment options. On the morning the story ran in the Wall Street Journal, I read it and suddenly felt certain he would recover fully. He's now been in remission for six years.

Caroline, my 35-year-old cousin, was diagnosed with breast cancer almost two years ago. While she was in the hospital, her husband talked openly about breasts and bodily fluids. At parties, he'd ask friends whether their 30-something wives performed regular self-exams and if they'd demanded mammograms from their physicians (40 is the typical age to begin mammograms). Caroline has been cancer-free for almost one year.

Sareana, a childhood friend and now 32, was diagnosed with brain cancer in December. In her blog, she documents her treatment experiences for family and friends. Seeing the home page photo of her hugging 9-month-old son Alex never fails to bring tears to my eyes. But it's also a comfort, and I check the site once a day for updates.

From a recent post about her reaction to her diagnosis: "Initially my thoughts ran wild and I wondered about the future. Would I be there for Alex? For [my husband]? For my family? After seven sessions of radiation I can honestly say it sucks. . . . The food I eat looks similar to Alex's. . . . The waiting room in an oncology office is one of the most difficult places to be. I've never felt so out of place, even though it's exactly where I belong under the circumstances. I look around and see people with gray hair. . . .

"I still wonder about tomorrow, but I live with what I know today."

What I know today is my friends have shared their cancer experiences with such candor that I feel a renewed connection with each of them. It will bring us even closer in the many years to come.

Garbee is a freelance food journalist and a regular contributor to The Times Food section. jgarbee@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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