Last night, I was watching a program about U.S. Navy aircraft carriers commissioned to patrol the seas around the middle east in 2005, just a few years after the fall of the World Trade Centre in New York. At one point, the crew of one carrier discussed the general sense frustration felt at the lack of action or engagement required since they’d been ordered to attend the situation. They were literally all fired up and ready to do….something. Anything. But not nothing. Crew members who knew someone personally affected by the events of September 11, 2001 had written a persons name on each of the bombs which lay in the ships hold. The entire mission was imbued with tension and meaning for all the crew, each highly trained, motivated and passionate in their own way. When asked what the orders from above were, one crew member deflatedly replied “Support. At this time, we’re just providing support.” It seemed the crew of the carrier felt “support” was fairly benign a mission considering what they were capable of, and what they arrived prepared for. However, my feeling was the local residents located within missile reach of the ship probably viewed the ship, the crew, and the reasons for their presence in a completely different way. To them, the “support” the ship was providing had a totally different meaning.
When we have cancer, folks around us will often rally with their own kinds of “support”, but exactly what “support” entails and how it looks and feels is often a matter of perspective. To the aircraft carrier crew, considering their training, motivation and equipment, providing “support” was a polite way of saying “we’re really doing nothing”. However the exact same “support”, even though it looked like doing nothing, felt very different to someone quite else close to the situation.
Sometimes as person with cancer, the support others are capable of and ready to provide isn’t the kind we actually want, need or expect. They may turn up with their aircraft carrier prepared for an all-out war on cancer, when all we really need is a rowboat and a half-hour of peace and quiet. They may arrive with their comprehensive preparations for battle and even a cancer-fighting bomb with our name on it, when all we really need is just someone to sit close and listen to us talk about our day without mentioning the “C” word. They may come to us all equipped to mop our brow, deal with our various nasty ablutions and talk incessantly positive, when all we really want is someone to bring us a bottle of wine and laugh with us while we drink it. Sometimes, there is a definite mismatch between how we interpret “support” and how the people around us do, and it may well be what we want from them doesn’t feel like “support” to them at all.
And sometimes, folks will actually avoid us completely because they think supporting a person with cancer requires a fully armed, fully equipped aircraft carrier, and they know full well they haven’t got one.
Clearly, this can cause all kinds of problems.
People come to cancer with all kinds of fears, expectations, assumptions and ideas. They also come with their absolutely-good good intentions, which are often fighting for space with the fears and assumptions. As a person with cancer, it’s vital for us to be mindful of how the people around us may be feeling not just about our having cancer, but about their own role in our journey. The kinds of “doing” folks who like to see results and enjoy being busy may feel inadequate and frustrated by the situation if they don’t find ways to channel their energy. Like the crew of the aircraft carrier, they might assume low-key or passive “support” is a polite way of saying “you’re pretty much useless here”. Conversely, folks who think cancer happening to you is the biggest, most awful thing that’s ever happened to anyone ever might assume they are vastly under-equipped to play any part in it. They may see “support” as too big an ask, and they may just take their little old rowboat right home and quietly stow it out back in shame and disgust with themselves.
What can we do? Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure. Every situation is different. People’s feelings are often so raw around the subject of cancer, many things are said and unsaid almost subconsciously. But being aware of how others see their own capacity to deal with our having cancer is a start. Often, once we broach the uncomfortable silences which can surround cancer and begin to talk about what’s really going on, the solutions become much clearer. Cancer is never greater than our capacity to not let it kill us in a thousand other ways. Trust in what was here before cancer came, and what will remain once its gone whatever the outcome. This I know – one way or another, with all of us willing and able to pull together to do the work cancer requires of us, everything is going to be okay.
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