One thing that people with cancer understand is numbers. They know dates, statistics, stages, genes... these numbers can be a life raft during stormy times, or they can weigh us down.
"So, these are people who are through their treatment and living past their cancer, right?" Irene (not her real name), a new student, asked me. She deduced this by looking around the room and seeing people with full heads of hair, unlike her. "Not exactly," I told her. "Some of these people are many years out from their cancer diagnosis, but some are facing recurrence, and some have been told that there's nothing more the medical community can do for them." And then more numbers spout from my lips: "34 years old," "2 young kids at home," "stage 4," "3rd diagnosis." Irene begins to weep and I fear she may never come back because I've weighed her down with these numbers.
I didn't mean to make Irene cry, but I wanted her to realize that we can't judge someone's quality of life based on the numbers. Just a few minutes earlier, we were all laughing and joking in class. I remind Irene that numbers are an abbreviated way to share information, but they aren't the whole picture, just as her own numbers do little to define her. She tells me she is "triple negative", or "3-", which means that her type of breast cancer has more unknowns that others; it is negative for responding to certain treatments. I can see that this knowledge is heavy on her mind and she wants to dwell on it. I let her talk, then we part and I wonder if I'll see her again.
Sometimes the burden is too heavy to face, and she's revealed that burden to me; since we haven't played the glossy, shiny, everything's-going-to-be-fine game, I wonder if she'll want to come to my class again and risk wading into the heavy pool of numbers again.
I don't buy into the threat of numbers and I strive to uncover the truth of people's situations. This means that I meet my students exactly where they are when I see them: happy, sad, angry, silly... we run the gamut of emotions as humans and a cancer diagnosis doesn't change that. I want to know of any limitations, because I want to do what I can to make this moment more livable, but beyond that, I don't ask about numbers. So far, this approach has worked for many of my students. We silently agree to meet in an authentic place, stripped of the forced cheer they may need to don for loved ones, and we gaze eye-to-eye, letting the numbers fall away.
Irene returns the following week. She looks lighter. She laughs at my stupid jokes a bit harder. She introduces herself to some of her cohorts after class and as they fold her into their arms I am reminded of the proverb:
"A burden shared is often a burden halved."