I tried to make it to the bathroom, but I didn’t. Strangers watched me barf. I’d left my wig at home, and I was bald with a few strands of rasta-matted hairs protruding wildly at odd angles or glommed like wet paste onto my head. My tee-shirt was stained, and the sweat pants I wore were hideous. I could feel people staring at me.
A man I’d never seen before said he’d clean up my mess, and my husband led me to a chair where I could wait out my nausea. I was having one of those cancer moments that required me to surrender and let everyone else do the work of supporting my existence.
People talk about the pain, uncertainty, disfigurement, and even the financial toll of breast cancer. But what sticks with me is the raw vulnerability it exposes. As a kid, my straight-laced parents taught us not to “air our dirty laundry.” I learned that the baser needs of our human journey are to be kept private – that the crude and emotionally taxing aspects of life are best not exposed, especially for girls.
So, when breast cancer hit and I found myself vomiting in front of an audience, it’s fair to say I was uncomfortable. And not just physically. Even as I was overcome with the mind-bending stomach upset that only chemo can induce, in the back of my brain, I was lucid enough to be humiliated about doing it in front of people.
In addition to feeling like crap, the severity of my disease scared the hell out of me. Was I going to leave my child without a mom? What about my husband? Was it my time to die? These are thoughts I’d learned to share with my journal, not with the wider world. At that moment, though, cancer took that luxury away from me. I displayed my angst right along with my vomit.
“Don’t worry about it,” the stranger said as he walked by with a mop. When I started feeling better, he pulled a chair next to mine and told me about his mom who also had breast cancer. While an hour passed, his story spilled out, and although I never learned his name, we shared a connection I still remember.
One of the benefits of my illness is that it slowed me down and it forced me to share my vulnerability. That pause and that exposure has opened a door I didn’t even know existed. I’ve always been something of a magnet for strangers to share their stories, but since cancer came into my life, it’s been easier for me to stop and listen more deeply. I’m better able to make room for intimacies that connect me to others. I find that I can listen without a list running through my head, and I don’t try to develop my own response when someone else is talking.
This new post-cancer lifestyle comes at a cost. If I hit the pause button during a busy day to call a friend, I might not get the house clean. When one of my daughter’s friends asks me for advice, I might end up serving pasta for dinner instead of something more elaborate. But a messy house and simple meals aren’t as big a deal as I once thought they were.
Centuries ago, St. Paul wrote that “when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s hard to get my head around those ironies and opposites the great thinkers of the world confuse the rest of us with. For me, it took barfing in public to understand Paul’s point, but in a lot of ways, it makes the whole cancer thing worth it.