Lonely Expats

By Natalie Serber

Serber.bw-29 copy-1A friend and I were talking about cancer. (It pains me to write that sentence.) My friend has had a recent breast cancer diagnosis. (That sentence hurts too.) She was telling me about unexpected feelings that have showed up for her.  Aside from worry and fear and confusion, she wished, she said, “that she didn’t feel so different from everyone else.” I completely understood. When I first received my diagnosis of breast cancer four years ago I spent weeks in a daze, looking out at those who still lived in the land of the healthy. None of you people here at this coffee house, movie theater, grocery store, are like me, I thought.  Of course this outsider status was not reality based, who knows what burdens others carry, but at that time, I felt alone. And, I think my friend feels alone as well.

After some time passed, I began to look around at people in the park, the restaurant, the car beside me at the stoplight and think, have you had cancer? Statistically speaking a good percentage of them probably has dealt with some form of cancer. I wondered; what do you have to teach me?  When I tried to explain this lonely expatriate feeling to my family, they didn’t understand. In fact, I once begged off plans for dinner with friends because I just didn’t want to sit and stare and wonder who had been sick, how many people were likely to get sick, was I the only woman in the room with this tarantula growing inside her breast? When I told my husband I couldn’t bear it, he said, “Not everything is about cancer.” And you see, that’s the thing, early in a diagnosis everything is about the cancer.

Thank god for writing. Going to the page and getting the words outside of my body was essential to my psychic recovery. I had a team to see me through my physical recovery—surgical oncologist, oncologist, plastic surgeon, acupuncturist, physical therapist, yoga teacher—and they were all wonderful, I am so grateful, but they could not do the hard work of exorcising the fears from my body. To do the work of clearing worry from my axons and dendrites, the page was my best friend, the only place where I could say the unsayable. I’m afraid of dying. Why me and not ____________? (You fill in the blank, for me it was Ann Coulter. Not that I want her to be sick, it’s just, I’m much nicer than she is.) In some strange way, I wasn’t sick on the page.  I was clearly examining and trying, not to make sense, no, because there is no logic to a cancer diagnosis, but I was trying to fully witness my experience. Writing about it wasn’t the same as living it. Writing gave me distance. It gave me perspective. Did I feel less alone? Not always. But, I regained autonomy from the disease. And that is what I keep telling my friend will happen for her.  Should she write about her experience it may happen sooner.

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