Today’s post is difficult for me to write. It’s light on the finance and heavy on the feels, so everyone grab a Kleenex or your snuggliest pet. I’m still processing the news, and it’s why I’ve neglected writing the past few weeks: my mom has cancer.
My mom has cancer.
An aggressive cancer with rapid onset and a nasty treatment plan. She has an unusual but not necessarily bad genetic mutation, which will direct her future treatment and overall prognosis. Though the survival rates are increasing (new drugs have recently been approved for the first time in A LONG TIME), the five-year survival rate is BAD, and it’s an uncommon cancer to develop.
It’s even less common in women than men and in people as young as my mom. To boot, we have minimal history of cancer in our family other than what I call “user error” diagnoses: stomach cancer and melanoma due to smoking and sun exposure (which still sucks, but isn’t a genetic cancer risk factor the same way, you know?). Yet here we are. Defying odds in a bad way.
I’m an anxious person. My therapist constantly tells me to internalize the fact that all the bad things I think could happen probably won’t happen.
While our family has many chronic health problems (Type 1 diabetes, various autoimmune issues, a smattering of mental health issues of varying severity, etc.), I’ve always taken small comfort in our family’s lack of cancer history. Cancer is truly my worst nightmare besides something like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Like, I have always joked that we don’t get things that kill us, we get things that make us miserable for many of the 85-96 years our average family member lives. We never die! Much less from cancer.
And you know, in a world where SO many things go wrong, it was nice to have ONE terrible thing that didn’t preemptively twist my stomach into knots each time I visited the doctor for some ailment or another. I was equally grateful to have a reasonable hope that my parents and grandparents wouldn’t suffer and/or die from such a terrible disease. I’ve actually thanked God at night for those small mercies.
And now that mercy is gone. To be replaced with others, I’m sure, but this hurts.
I know I’m a lucky man right now
/ but so afraid that time will take it all from me.
“Anxiety,” Jason Isbell
Those words have never rung more true.
I tempted fate, you see. Never take an ounce of personal certainty for granted in this world, especially when the perpetrator is cancer.
They say there are 5 stages of grief and I’m not sure what stage I’m in- probably shock? - but it isn’t yet anger. I guarantee I will be angry at God in a little while, but that too shall pass, and I’ll move to whatever the next phase is and stare down this beast.
(1) If God isn’t your thing, skip to #2…
I actually started reading Tim Keller’s Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering this year at the recommendation of a friend, and if that wasn’t the timeliest recommendation in history, I don’t know what is. Like, oh here’s a book you should read that will calm your mind around the seemingly random cruelty of life and how God can can still be good despite things as awful as cancer.
The short version is that our human brains aren’t built to comprehend everything, but Western knowledge culture has told us otherwise, which creates a lot of cognitive dissonance around things we can’t reconcile mentally. But just because we can’t comprehend how doesn’t mean it can’t be so.
Apparently modern Western society also conditions us to think all suffering is bad which isn’t historically the case in any other society, any religion or any time period. That’s the really short version, but that’s a decent synopsis. So yeah, super #relevant, no?
(2) Fuck cancer.
Something we can all agree on and which really needs no elaboration.
My mom has finished her induction chemo, we spent Christmas in the hospital (my wonderful stepfather decorated the hospital room, tree and all! and hasn’t left my mom’s side except to run errands and check on the house), and she’s having relatively mild side effects in her recovery period, though they still suck so much. We’re now waiting on her ANC (white blood cell) count to increase and stabilize and have tests pending to determine whether induction chemo killed the cancer.
“I feel so small /
I feel so weak”
Sing it, Jason!
I hate seeing my mama like this. At Christmas I helped her tie a scarf around her thinning hair, wearing a mask and gloves to keep my germs away from her nonexistent immune system, and I almost crumbled right there in the hospital bathroom. She’s stronger than I am. Or at least more stoic/optimistic. Maybe she’s scared in her heart, but you wouldn’t know it for a second. There’s months of hell to come and we’re taking it one step at a time.
You Can’t Control Cancer, But You Can Control How You Plan for it Financially.
As retired educators, my parents are fortunate enough to have good insurance, and they have both the optional cancer rider on their regular policy and a separate cancer policy (which is a thing I’m going to get and I’m going to write about because you should absolutely have one). So, despite the fact that they are not wealthy by any means, and not financially independent, their wise financial planning for their situation means they will not face financial ruin or even strain from this.
They have access to literally any cancer center in the country, which is more of a relief than you could possibly imagine. Coverage is one thing; having the option to see the best, quickly, and with few out of pocket costs, is pretty unsuual even in the universal-iest of healthcare systems.
And, most importantly, my mom has an INSANE support system. As do I. We aren’t wealthy, but we have a wealth of friends. And those friends are helping take care of the emotional AND ancilliary financial needs of this kind of diagnosis (which are many, and frankly overlooked by conversations about health insurance and illness).
Which is the point of this post.
You Need Emergency Friends Just As Much As You Need Emergency Funds
Y’all, I could cry. I probably will before I finish the piece (Update: I did). When I got the call, I was standing naked in my bathroom, self-tanner still drying in preparation for a Mexican wedding adventure that weekend.
Immediately after my mom and I disconnected, I sobbed. I was alone. My roommate was out of town and I knew I couldn’t face that night by myself.
I called my old roommate (whose mother beat cancer about 10 years ago) and she was in her car instantly, flying to my house like a bat out of hell to hug me until I stopped crying, and then regaled me with her dating misadventures to get me laughing and binged Friends with me until I was finally tired enough to sleep.
One friend got on the phone with MD Anderson (the best cancer hospital in the country) to expedite Mom’s admission if that was what they wanted to do (they decided to stay local for now).
I outsourced the breaking news to several friends who acted as virtual paper boys, shouting “Extra! Extra!” to everyone who didn’t yet know. They did it in record time.
My phone was jumping off the table. One friend told me she was going to be a broken record of offering to help me in any possible way. She actually *apologized* for that. What a friend.
The South Africa travel crew sent my mom a care package with LITERAL LETTERS to her. One friend wanted to send crossword books. People offered their prayers, well wishes, thoughts, good vibes, and more prayers.
Their love for me extends to a woman many of them have never met…because our friendship means that much to them. I mean that much to them. They mean that much to me.
Small Circles Are Overrated
Invest in people. Find your people. Don’t put up with toxic people - and if you’re toxic, work on yourself. Traditional wisdom sometimes says: “if you’ve had one true friend in life, you can count yourself lucky”; “keep a small circle”; “don’t spread yourself too thin”; “your time is valuable and not many poeple are worth it.”
I say screw all that. I have layers of friendships, of course, and it’s important to protect your time and energy, but I don’t believe for a second that you can’t draft an entire roster of true friends with whom the effort of community-building is worth it. If you don’t have a huge community, that’s ok too! Work on cultivating meaningful relationships where you can, though. And don’t keep a small circle for its own sake.
Seriously, I have more reliable friends than any one human should ever have. And so do my parents. The weeks after my mom’s diagnosis have brought me to my knees in gratitude for the people in my life.
I didn’t always, though. In eighth grade, I had no friends. I was awkward and insecure, and my mom told me “to make a friend, you have to be a friend.” I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to be a friend. Sometimes it blows up on you, but more often than not, you do in fact make a friend.
A lot of people talk about, and even celebrate, burrowing on their debt free journeys. They turn down social invitations. They revel in their nights in, alone.
Don’t get so caught up in a debt-free, wealth-building, or self-improvement adventure that you neglect to build that community. There are ways to maintain friendships even if you’re on a tight budget or have big dreams. You’re not better than everyone else. Everyone else isn’t toxic. Everyone isn’t KeEpInG yOu FrOm YoUr GoAlS. There are people out there for you to love and to love you. FIND THEM.
There are people out there for you to love and to love you. FIND THEM.
Emergency friends are just as critical to weathering a storm as an emergency fund (though don’t neglect that either), and more critical than achieving financial security quickly. Which brings me to the literal financial benefits friendship has provided me and my parents during this time.
Support systems are emotional and also financial.
Obviously I do not quantify friendships in financial terms. But having people on your team whom you support when they have needs will come back to you, and Scrooging yourself away from people until you achieve your financial goals will actually have negative financial consequences (in addition to the emotional support I described above).
My friends (including PFGeeks in Houston who hasn’t even met me in person!) volunteered the following, and more, to me:
Use of American Airlines buddy passes for me and my family (I live a day’s drive from home)
Rides to the airport
Babysitting my dog over the entire Christmas break
Offering their homes near the hospital to me when I visited her
Their home for me and/or my parents to stay if they sought treatment at MD Anderson
My parents’ friends are visiting the hospital just to take my stepdad to lunch or dinner and leaving him with a couple hundred dollar bills or gift cards. They’re tripping over each other to receive the rare non-family visit with my mom when my stepdad needs a break to do life tasks. My mom’s hair stylist came to the hospital to cut her hair short free of charge.
Reliable friends are a safety net just as much as a real emergency fund.
The flight I took home to see my mom the week after her diagnosis would have cost me $750. Had I boarded my dog, it would have cost me $200+ for the week. Hotels, Uber fares. All avoided because the people in our lives wanted to make our dificult time a little easier. My stepdad’s wallet was so fat with gifts he could barely close it.
Be that friend. Make those friends.
My stepdad took me to lunch downstairs at the hospital, and he told me that while he had spent years taking care of people around him, it felt strange to be the one in the position to receive it.
But if that isn’t what life is about, what is?
Accept the help when you need it and offer it when you don’t.
Be generous with your friends. My friend who offered Buddy Passes to me - that cost her nothing but a few minutes of her time to book the flights for me (and maybe the taxes? Should probably ask her about that). My friend who took my dog gave me only her time, but she saved me money and so much stress.
This is worth repeating. And do not forget it:
When you need help, don’t be proud. Ask for what you need and accept offers of help that will lighten your load.
When you don’t need help, think about ways you can make your friend’s life easier or better. It may not cost you much other than a bit of time (or it may), but saving a friend money, time or stress in an emergency situation is worth every bit of your investment.
When you invest your time in building a tribe, the fire you build together will keep you warm even on the coldest nights.
Who else has Emergency Friends like mine?
P.S. I’m doing okay. Really. I’m not falling apart. I don’t feel hopeless. Mom is fighting and we’re fighting with her. Hug your people, y’all.
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