The upside of cancer?
Please. But there does seem to be one side of cancer that is the opposite of terror, loneliness and pain: the unexpected friendships that grow just like those darn cells.
“I was diagnosed pretty young — 31,” says Stacey Gordon, a New York native living in Alabama who is now — knock wood — 51.
Gordon had already moved down there with the Air Force when she found herself facing breast cancer. “I wasn’t married. I was all alone,” recalls the personal trainer, so she decided to gather a group of other breast cancer comrades to exercise with. This, despite the fact that the doctors back then “wanted to wrap you in cotton.”
The group exercised to the point where they were fit enough, a few years later, for a bigger challenge — Mount Kilimanjaro, which, Gordon hastens to add, “was not a cliché back then.”
As close as she was with the group, it wasn’t until she was climbing with her mates — and realizing that she couldn’t make it to the top — that she really got to know another member, named Jane, who couldn’t go any farther, either.
“We probably had almost nothing in common. She was married and had older children and was very Southern. Perfectly coiffed, perfect makeup. She’s also very religious and Christian. Me, I was young. I’m gay. I’m Jewish.”
Somehow they talked about it all — even while touring Tanzania — and went back as tight friends. So tight that when Jane grabbed her hand to pray, Gordon “used to be embarrassed about it,” she says. “But that kind of changed.”
And so did Gordon. Something very angry started melting away. (She also went back and summited
Mount Kilimanjaro a few years later.)
For Stephanie Johnson, a new friendship began even before she knew for sure she had breast cancer. “I was working part time at a bar,” says the Dallas beauty consultant/photographer. She’d just learned she needed a biopsy on her left breast, when into the bar walked a woman “covered in pink everything. She was wearing scarves and breast cancer-related jewelry,” she says. “I approached her and said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but are you dealing with breast cancer?’”
The woman — Robin — answered yes and gave her some friendly tips on how to get through the biopsy. When the results came back positive, Johnson contacted her again, and the stranger became a mentor.
It was Robin who gave Johnson a basket filled with lip balm, a lap blanket to keep her warm during chemotherapy and tissues. Lots of tissues. “I was like, ‘Why am I going to need these?’” recalls Johnson. Robin explained that when hair falls out, it all falls out — including nose hair. This leaves people sniffling.
Robin was a Bible study group kind of lady. Johnson was covered from head to toe with tattoos. But once the two became friends, Johnson turned around and became the “Robin” to other women with the same diagnosis — right down to delivering gift baskets of blanket, balm and Kleenex.
“In some ways, helping someone else deal with their fears makes it easier to face your own,” says Jenn McRobbie, author of “Why Is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When a Friend Is in Crisis.”
Whatever the impulse, the result is radical kindness. “When I was walking through the mall and I was bald as a cue ball, I would have women walk up to me and hug me and just say, ‘Soldier on, sister.’ And then they’d just keep walking,” says McRobbie.
There’s no upside to cancer. But there is an upside to the human connections that it can bring out.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free- Range Kids” and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Her TV show, “World’s Worst Mom,” airs on Discovery Life Channel.