For the Week of August 28, 2016: When My Friend said, “Cancer.”

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend…

(“You’ve Got a Friend,” Carole King, 1971)

Remember the song “You’ve got a friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, testimony to the importance of the enduring, and true friendships in our lives.

It’s the song I listened to this morning, tears streaming down my face, James Taylor singing the lyrics that captured the words that failed me yesterday, when my dear friend, C., whom I’ve known for over a half century, called to tell me the news I hoped I not to hear.  I wrote about C. a few weeks ago in my post on scars.

My husband and I visited C. and his wife in late May, and we noticed the bandage on his neck, there to cover a weeping lesion on his neck.  It was skin cancer—melanoma—he’d already had two removed in recent years.  Yet this one was larger and more dangerous looking.  He had it removed shortly after we left, and after surgery, his doctors declared the margins clear.  He called to share the happy news, he and his wife obviously relieved, as I was.

Yesterday morning, as I was ending a call with two of my grandchildren, my desk phone began ringing.  I saw C.’s name on the screen.  He’d tried to call me the night before, but I’d been out for the evening.   I picked up the receiver and said hello.

“What’s up?” I asked.  “I saw that you’d tried to call me last night.  I was just about to call you, but my grandchildren called before I could.”

He didn’t waste any time getting to the purpose of his call.  He’d been seen by a team at a top notch cancer treatment center, and his tests and scans revealed some bad news:   his melanoma has metastasized to his spine and liver.  “How long do I have?”  He asked the doctors.

“Without treatment, nine to twelve months,” they told him.  My hand instinctively flew to my mouth to muffle my gasp as he continued to talk.  He opted for treatment of course, determined to live as long as he can.  Two new immunotherapies, approved in late 2015, have recently shown to extend the survival rates for melanoma patients.  “Let’s keep this ship afloat for as long as we can,” he told his medical team. (C. is an avid sailor.)  They arranged to begin his treatment regimen soon.

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

“Come see me,” he said.  C. and his wife live in in the Pacific Northwest, where we visited them in May while on an anniversary road trip.

“Of course,” I said.  “We will,” adding, “perhaps you and I will finally take that long beach walk we promised each other.”

It’s a promise made decades ago, years after we met at a summer church camp as teenagers.  That last night at camp, we sat together on a split rail fence among the redwood trees, our arms linked, talking well past midnight about our hopes, dreams and the meaning—as we understood it then—of life.  We were, we discovered, kindred spirits, and despite our youth, our friendship blossomed and endured time, marriages, children, living in different countries, and the ups and downs of our respective lives.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

We wrote one another for decades, since we always lived several hundred or more miles apart.  C., who became a journalist for many years, instilled in me a love of the written word.  He grew up near San Francisco.  I grew up in a small Northern California town.  His letters, begun the summer we met, enlarged my world.  Two years later, when I left California to be an AFS exchange student to the Netherlands, he came to the airport to see me off.  It was my turn to enlarge his world, writing  him multi-paged letters about my experience living in a Friesian village.

There were lapses between us over the years–the Vietnam war, marriage, children, losses, re-marriage, relocations, illness—but we always found one another again, our friendship resumed, deepened, and grew to include our spouses.  Throughout it all, we held on to the promise to have a long walk together, talk about our lives and the friendship between us, as we once did so long ago on that star-lit night in the redwoods.  A walk we have yet to take.

The good thing about friends
is not having to finish sentences.

I sat a whole summer afternoon with my friend once
on a river bank, bashing heels on the baked mud
and watching the small chunks slide into the water
and listening to them – plop plop plop.
He said, ‘I like the twigs when they…you know…
like that.’ I said, ‘There’s that branch…’
We both said, ‘Mmmm’. The river flowed and flowed
and there were lots of butterflies, that afternoon.

(From:  “About Friends,” by Brian Jones, in:  The Spitfire on the Northern Line, 1975)

I guess our telephone conversation was a bit like Brian Jones’ sentence:  “the good thing about friends/is not having to finish sentences.”  So much was running through my head as he talked, so much banging against my heart as he told me about his diagnosis.

“You hear this a lot,” he said, “I know you understand…”

My voice caught as I replied, “Yes, but it’s not the same as hearing it from someone who is such a part of your life…”

Now I’m staring at the computer screen trying to figure out what to write next.  Words fail me.  You know how important our friends are to us, and there’s plenty of research to affirm the benefits of friendship.  Yet this morning, I don’t feel like quoting those studies. What consumes me now is that my dearest friend has been delivered a wallop—the news so many of you have heard yourselves—and his journey through treatment and recovery is just beginning.  There are no guarantees.  But we can hope.

My heart aches for C., and I am at a loss for words.  All I can do is reach out my hand and say, “You’ve got a friend…”

Writing Suggestion:

Write about friendship—being a friend, having friends and even losing them.  What has friendship meant to you during cancer or other challenging life events?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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