I hate cancer. I hate it so hard that it’s hard to even quantify. I’ll go with the measurement that my five-and-a-half-year-old uses and say that I hate it googol.
For those of you new to my blog, I should tell you that I am a massage therapist. It has been my career for over 12 years, and it is, I suppose, one of my life’s great purposes. I love it. In fact, I love it googol. Some of my clients I see once, and never again (although those are few), others I see on and off for a few years, and then things happen and they move on. Then there are the ones who have been with me for either the entire length of my career, or long enough that it seems like it.
Some of these clients have always maintained a distance with me—one that is not uncomfortable or strange, it just is. And that’s alright. Some began that way, and over time our relationship has changed, bringing a certain level of familiarity that is mostly found in long-term-acquaintance relationships. And then there are the relationships that transcend all of those and become, well, like family. Healthy family, that is.
Nine years ago a woman was referred to me by a regular client. She came into our office with a large bandage on her arm, and with an air of vulnerability that I’ve rarely seen since. She was dealing with one of her worst nightmares: a melanoma had recently been removed from her arm. Sure, there isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t consider cancer to be terrible, but I have found that there are people in the world who dread what they believe to be the inevitability of the occurrence of cancer in their own physical lives. This client was one of those people. And in this particular treatment, our first, she was quiet and just wanted to get some relief from pain related to stress. I treated her, and she rebooked before she left that night. She has come regularly ever since.
She’s a fiery broad, with strong convictions, and a wit and intelligence that I have always admired. She loves her cats like I love my kids and I dare you to challenge her over the depth of her love for them. For nine years, she has never simply called me “Sarah,” but always “Sarah, dear,” each and every time we speak. Over the years I have worried on and off about her, simply because she has chosen to live her life alone. Never married, no children, and just a small circle of close friends. She has been content, and mostly it’s been a nice life. She is a smart, accomplished woman, and although she is approaching 70 years of age, she has felt tethered to her professional career and had not until recently, considered retirement.
She is a client who talks. Now, there are therapists out there (and clients too) who frown upon this, but I have always felt, with this particular client, that it is a need as strong as that for relief from physical pain. And to be honest, I have enjoyed it. At times I have had to put a stop to political conversation, not because we differ, but because her passion sort of takes over her body, and at a certain point, it becomes obvious that her passion will win.
I found out by e-mail that she has terminal cancer. An e-mail because, well, she wanted to prepare me for her treatment plan of positivity: “I am still quite positive and hope you will be too.” Of course, I said. Of course! It is my way. And I am. Or, at the very, very least, I try to be.
I have grown to love her. She is one of those clients who has become very important to me. It is one of the great challenges of our profession, this balance between the professional relationship and the human experience. In this case, when I see this strong, feisty woman losing her hair and unable to hold a glass of water without spilling it, I feel for my friend, not my client. Where once she could tell me all the news of the week (including book reviews) and her feelings about it, she now can’t remember what she was saying as she is saying it. This of course is because of the other thing I hate: chemo.
The first time I saw her after her diagnosis, I was positive as requested, until I left the room to weep. And today, when she finally succumbed to the overwhelming sense of sadness, fear, anger, and loss of physical autonomy, I cried with my friend, not my client. And because life can sometimes be a total shitstorm of crap, I held her while she wept for another loss—one of her cats—to, of course, cancer. My treatment room has become her safe place to express what makes most people uncomfortable or nervous. I want her to express it because I know what can happen to us when we don’t. And I mean it when I say to her, “please don’t apologize. You can say anything to me.” I mean it, but it still hurts. This is one thing that I cannot offer her any relief for, and it feels unnatural to me, as I am most comfortable in the role of helper. But it’s the many levels of loss that need to be processed that is overwhelming for both of us, though for her most of all.
This isn’t written in my usual fashion, and although I have the urge to, I will not apologize for the lack of humor in this post. Don’t worry, it will come back. But for now, all I have is this: I really fucking hate cancer.
*If you are looking for more from Erica Steinhagen, my guest blogger, she’ll be back soon.