Dear Cancer, Welcome to 2016

Elaine Broe
6 min readDec 26, 2015

I’ve written several open letters to cancer starting in January 2010, October 2011 and then in 2012, when I literally became the one in three who didn’t have the disease. I’ve learned while cancer doesn’t really give a shit, there are many other people in the world that do care. They cry. They rage. They suffer. They survive. They die. I’m almost six years into writing threatening gangland style letters to this disease while another friend has spent those years fighting. I thought I’d try something different this time and write a letter to you instead of cancer.

I remember the first time my friend told me. Just returned from the doctor, she had news. In person news. What is now more commonly known as cancer news.

At the end of my workday on a snowy January in Banff, Alberta, I traipse up three flights of stairs to her apartment where a few close friends gather. I carefully navigate the steps thinking, don’t slip. I look out at the snow globe blanketing the mountains and stop just before the door. I stand there, breathing and waiting. This moment will be the last moment where she doesn’t have cancer. Not yet. Not until I walk through the door and look at her face and she crumples, I crumple, and we both cry.

That day, I watched as her world slowly closed in and she fought back with positivity and hope. Six years later, she still fights, but it takes her a little longer to get up when she’s knocked down. Nowadays she sees the knockout coming and just can’t quite get out of the way. Then she waits for the next round. Round of cancer, round of chemo, round of fighting.

Hostile Takeover
Chronic cancer means years of being an emotional hostage. Her journey has been a long one with three separate surgeries and years of scans, chemo, and port changes. After chemotherapy, her 3 month follow up appointments deliver news of the all clear. Time to rebuild life, go back to work and normalcy returns. Hope gains traction and her body slowly becomes her own again. Until six months, like clockwork, each time a small shadow reappears, nodules grow, lymph-nodes are attacked and treatment plans resurface.

The personal psychological toll of chronic cancer is unimaginable to me, how one holds onto sanity through each appointment, each disappointment. Cancer is a systematic hoodlum who trashes your home while you sleep.

Sometimes I look at her out of the corner of my eye and wonder, how has she not given up? How has she not laid down and just said, enough? How can she use the word grateful with no irony whatsoever? I hear her reply with a wisdom that can only come from this disease, “Because I will die”. She knows no matter what defeat lurks within her body and mind at that moment, the biggest minefield she must avoid is giving up completely. Where cancer is concerned, hope is the last weapon she has access to. She wields it like a ninja.

Cancer AutoCorrect
Things change over the course of six years. Instead of being summoned together to hear her news, we now receive it by text or email. Like an update on missing groceries, her scan results appear in a small blue speech bubble in the palm of my hand. Three month scans usually involve lots of emoticons and fuck cancer (in all caps) dances across my screen. Six month scan results arrive in short texts; positive upbeat hope paired with an acknowledgment of disappointment. Onward they say, yet again.

I get it. I mean, I don’t fully understand, I can’t. I get that she must protect herself from the psychological rollercoaster between health and disease. Having emotional sit-ins announcing your greatest fears to a roomful of people is everyone’s version of hell. I remember the two celebration parties we held over the years. Before we threw a third, she made the decision we should probably stop celebrating. Then there was the year the doctor stopped talking about remission and started talking about living with cancer and maintenance chemo. “The new normal,” she said. “Fuck that,” I replied unhelpfully.

How do we hit send on our own mortality updates? Worse yet, how do I reply? If I can purchase an emoji of Kim Kardashian’s ass, why can’t I find one to convey how much cancer sucks?

The Awkward Disease
As a society, we’ve developed a vocabulary for navigating the news of cancer. While not overly original, its ingredients include bumper sticker words of courage, bravery, and strength peppered with positivity and loose knowledge we’ve gleaned from the countless people we know fighting various forms of this disease.

Oh, that’s the good cancer (air quotations optional). It responds really well to chemo. My uncle had that and he’s doing great now. She’s so healthy and strong, she’ll fight it. We’ll fight it. They’ve caught it early. F*CK CANCER.

When it comes to chronic cancer and long term disease, there doesn’t seem to be much skill in our language (or our intelligence). Normal questions we use every day suddenly become a ticking time bomb of awkwardness. “How are you?” Nope. Do NOT ask that, she’s answered it 50 times today. “What’s new?” Are you kidding me? Cancer is what’s new. Chemo is new.

I begin to talk around cancer because I assume she’s tired of talking about it. In truth, I’m terrified. I’ve passed the place where even my imagined ability to understand her experience exists and I am in no man’s (woman’s) land. I feel this weight of needing to know the right thing to say. After six years, under no circumstance do you use the term “brave”. We vetoed that one after year two. My brainpower is spent trying to find a balance between honesty, hope and simply being me, her friend who usually responds to life incidents with an emergency flask of whiskey and swearing.

I know the answer is to simply continue being me. Be who I am for her. There are more and more moments where it feels so desperately inadequate, but I know it’s all I’ve got.

One New Text
Today, as I sit looking at another six month scan update from her, I feel a lack of surprise that breaks my heart. I write this post because I feel useless. I feel the rage, the unfairness and the sorrow. She starts chemo again on the last day of this year, a depressing anniversary celebration of surviving six years with cancer.

I understand she is lucky to be alive, to have insurance and phenomenal doctors. She’ll be the first person to annoyingly tell you she is grateful for so much. I know many of you have stories that would break my heart (and have broken yours). I know I am not alone. She is not alone. We are all hauling around our delicate hearts, our awkward words and our ninja throwing stars in hopes of hearing and helping one another through the triumphs and losses. I see you.

After receiving her text, I reply. Watching my feeble words take shape in a text bubble and thinking to myself, this is not enough. This is her life. So I grab my emergency flask and send a swear-filled email expressing my inability to say all the things that crowd my mind. I may not get it right, but I’ll be me while I do it. The email ends with the following…

I’m here, thinking of you, not repeating the same platitudes, just swearing, and knowing there is so much to be grateful for as you continue to defy the odds with a stronger persistence than this disease. Even through your tears and fear and anger and disappointment (that word isn’t even close to being the right f*cking word) you are focused like a motherf*cker. I love you.

Onward they say, yet again.

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Elaine Broe

I am the founder of the Leadership Collaboratory where I design and facilitate experiences that inspire new ideas & challenge old patterns. elainebroe.com