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Life Redefined: When Words Have Meaning

Post Published: 20 July 2010
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Category: Column, Life Redefined, Thyroid Cancer in Young Adults Column
This post currently has 28 responses. Leave a comment

After my cancer diagnosis and first surgery, I received a lot of stuff from a lot of people. Stuff is how people in this day and age convey they are thinking about you. I received clothes, books, magazines, movies, gift cards, lots of flowers, blankets, jello, pudding, and more jello. People brought meals over to me. People came to visit me. People brought me even more pudding. (As a sidenote, just because somebody has surgery does not mean they want a year’s supply of Snack Packs.) What meant more to me than anything else, though, is what people said to me. I received loads of cards and emails with beautiful messages meant to support and encourage me as I walked down Cancer Road.  However, the nicest, most genuine words I received were those that were backed up with actions.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about how words are empty if you don’t follow through with the promise you are making. Several years ago, the father of one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with cancer. My friend needed support during this time. She needed her friends to actually be friends. Speaking for myself, I failed miserably. All I gave her was empty words, words that promised support and love and friendship, but words that meant nothing because I didn’t follow through. I abandoned my friend when she needed me the most.

Here’s the scary thing, though—I had absolutely no idea that I was deserting her. I was clueless. I thought I was being a good friend. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. I had never been in the position where a friend was dealing with such a hard, life-changing experience. I didn’t know what it meant to actually support somebody through cancer. I didn’t even realize how horribly unsupportive I was until I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

In October 2008, I received the worst news of my lifetime. Cancer is a hard word to hear, especially when it’s associated with your own name, but I was surrounded by supporters. I had people I didn’t even know emailing me notes of encouragement. My friends rallied around me and promised to walk with me the entire way. And they were a great support system for me. Words can’t convey how great they were. They sent me some of the most beautiful, heartfelt, supportive messages. And they truly meant every word they said and wrote to me…at first. After about a year, their words became empty. They abandoned me. They quit calling. They quit emailing. They quit checking in. Unbeknownst to them (I hope), they quit supporting me as I continue to try and figure out how to live with cancer.

All of them abandoned me with the exception of a precious few. I can count on one hand the number of friends who have actually walked this entire journey with me. One of those precious few is my dear friend who I did not support while her father was dealing with cancer. Not only did she forgive me for not walking the road with her, but she actually took up the journey with me. To this day she hasn’t abandoned me, not for one minute.

Since receiving my cancer diagnosis, I’ve learned the importance of words. The nicest, most heartfelt gift I’ve received has been from those few friends who have proven themselves to be true to their promise, friends whose words are followed by action.

This whole idea of words and friendship and support has been weighing heavy on my heart lately, and I just wanted to share my thoughts with you. We can only support each other when we back up our words with action. When our words of support are followed by inaction, we turn ourselves into liars. When we don’t follow through with our promise of support, we let each other fall to the ground, and when we fall to the ground, getting back on our feet is no easy task. I’m not telling you this because you don’t know how to follow through on your promise of support. That’s not it at all. You are a wonderful, beautiful community who know how to support each other. You get it. I know you do, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m telling you this because I think many of you know exactly what I’m talking about; you know what it’s like to be free-falling and land smack on the ground when you were expecting to be rescued by those who promised to be there but got distracted on the way.

So tell me, how has your idea of support changed since you’ve had to live with illness? How have words torn you down? How have they built you up? Do you have a good source of support to catch you when you fall?

xoxo,

Joanna

joanna@dearthyroid.org

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28 Responses to “Life Redefined: When Words Have Meaning

  1. Melissa Travis says:

    This is beautiful. I too can remember MANY times when I have “failed to show up” for people who needed me. But I am realizing now that my entire point of this life is to LEARN AND GROW…

    And so is yours. So that NOW you can come through for other people – and BE HEARD. YOU are using your voice so that others might not fall down on the job. We don’t always have to re-create the wheel or touch the burning stove. We can learn from the “mistakes” of others.

    Illness is scary. It just is. Hearing scary words like, “the bic C” is SO offputting. And people run away or fade away into the ether.

    I’m still humbled by the people who have BEEN HERE FOR ME. I also have to chip away at the anger and bitterness in my heart at the people who just “abandoned me” and stopped talking to me… I have to FORGIVE the people who couldn’t be my friend anymore or who RAN LIKE THE WIND at my illnesses (or perceived burdens).

    Thank you – THANK YOU- for being the light in the dark for many people. Maybe they won’t have to mess up… maybe they won’t be the ones who run away… or… maybe they can realize they can just buck up and go back and be friend again even if they messed up.

    You are a beautiful writer!! I love your columns!!
    xo
    Melissa

  2. MollyH78 says:

    This hits home for me today. It is two weeks today that I have had my thyroidectomy. But not only am I trying to heal from surgery and keep from stressing about the unknown date of my scan, I am trying to cope with the loss of friends that I had thought once dear to me and also my parents, whom I thought were supposed to be pillars of support for me. Empty words, empty promises and now emptiness in my heart.

    Thankfully I have my unbelievable husband. He is taking care of me, our son and on top of it his job. Without him I would be completely and utterly lost with abandonment. In sickness and in health, we spoke to each other. How full and complete those words have been between us. He caught me as I was and have been falling but, I truly believe he will never let me hit the ground.

    Thank you for writing this. It reminds me I have what I need.

  3. Donna says:

    Hi Joanna,

    Love your words:) Thank you for writing them.

    I was an avid reader growing up so I have always loved words. I knew the power they held. Because of my work in Human Resources I learned early on that words have to be chosen carefully because it was important that people understood me, sometimes their jobs depended on it. I always felt that if someone said something that they had to mean it or why would they have said it. It took me a long time to realize that sometimes words are just words to others and they don’t realize the power they hold.

    When I started the cancer journey my husband told me that everything was going to be okay. It was a bad choice of words and I immediately chose to go it alone. I regret that because it added another layer of craziness that was not necessary. I should have let him comfort me but I did not want to hear those words, I thought they were insensitive and untrue. A few words could have destroyed us. I focused on the words cancer free.

    I had support from famly and friends and I knew who I could depend on if need be. I did not want support as strange as that sounds. I wanted to focus on my son and spend the rest of my time sleeping. I cried when I was alone. What really meant the most to me was knowing that I could count on people if I made a final exit. I put that in words and had it notarized just in case. I did not ask permission of those that were mentioned. I knew that would be okay, lol!

    Some people were better with words than others but that had always been the case. The best words were in written form from my cousin who said that she would be there for me no matter what and that she could not imagine life without me. Those were true words and they comforted me because they addressed my fears.

    Nicholas was 5 and his teacher was awesome. She offered to keep him while I was in isolation, she sent home a casserole after my first surgery, she offered to come decorate my house because it was Christmas and she called me often to check on me. She comforted me by saying she would pay special attention to Nicholas and she did. She also was the first person to suggest that perhaps this happened to me so that I could help others which gave me something to think about. Today we call her friend and we always will. She has 5 kids of her own and she put herself out there and meant it. We had only known her for a few months when I was diagnosed. Her words gave me peace of mind.

    Another was my forever friends that are married to each other. His gift to her over the holidays was a plane ticket to be with me because he knew it was wearing on her. She instant messaged me every single day.

    I alienated myself for the most part but my true friends are still my true friends. My husband is still my husband. My mother is still my mother. Everyone is still intact but not because they kept their word necessarily or because they chose the right words.

    I’ve made new friends along the way and some have been keepers and others not so much, lol. But that too was the way pre-cancer. Life is a process. People come in and out of our lifes for a reason or a purpose.

    I guess those of us with chronic illness are not as much fun as we use to be, I guess we can be difficult or emotional at times. But we are real and genuine and true and that is what is important. Those that choose their words carefully can come for the ride and the rest of them are not deserving of us.

    You show up, everyone here does because we are different. We have been places that others just don’t get. I’m not holding it against them. I’m thankful to and for those that do. I am not giving up on people because they screw up.

    Post diagnosis I am more understanding of illness. I was probably pretty good before it but I remember sometimes thinking that some people were over dramatizing their situation. I am not that person anymore. No way.

    I’m sorry that not everyone showed up for you. I wish it was not so but those that did make up for it I hope.
    Thank you for your lovely words.

    Donna xo

  4. Lisa Stiers says:

    This is so amazing, to be there really be there, with words of healing and love and compassion. To help you fight the fight. It helps you win your battle, instead of bring you down to a level that makes your illness worse. To give you strenght instead of saying how disappointing you are because of your disease, to lift you up and hold you firm, instead of blaming you for something you had know control over what so ever. To see that you were not your depression and didn’t judge you for having it. Not to say things that put you into more depression. How truely blessed to have a friend that forgave you and then walked with you! That is so rare and it’sbbeautiful! I have some who have been there telling me and showing me I’m here, not closing me out because I’m not perfect enough to be allowed in there life. I was falling so fast I didn’t know why or how come. Then I found out and that has been a double edge sword! So when I here that there are friends who will be there and will truely give there love, compassion, time and will not stop calling or showing you are worth it, that builds my hope to a knew level, that people will set aside time for you and help you get through it. Life is more important than time!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dear Thyroid, Dear Thyroid. Dear Thyroid said: NEW! "Life Redinfed: When Words Have Meaning" #ThyCa choosing words and support. Gr8 column http://bit.ly/9Ua7tI, please check it out […]

  6. Bee says:

    Joanna- you’re right in that you probably didn’t have a clue that you were falling down on your end of support. Many ppl don’t realize that our actions or lack of them can be so hurtful.Until we go thru something life altering , I don’t think any of us knows how to be a good support system. All those gifts and jello packs were meant in the best possible way; like the 14 lb. ham brought to my mom and myself, only my mom and myself, while we were staying at my aunt’s house for 2 days during her funeral-the intention was so very thoughtful but so very unnecessary. But ilness has a way of culling out the herd…you really know who your friends are and even tho their #s may dwindle the ones that remain are keepers!

  7. HDinOregon says:

    Hello Joanna,

    Great and wonderful article. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    Just fired an email off to “B” because I hadn’t heard from her in a while. Your article reminded me. Thanks so much.

    HD

  8. Teresa Tulipano says:

    Thank you so much for this great piece of writing. It really resonates for me, as do most of the posts here. I’m thankful for the space to deal with this in kinship and the support I feel just knowing this site is here.

    Teresa

  9. Amanda says:

    Joanna,
    This is so close to my heart right now. Every day I come here [sometimes too many times a day to be considered normal], and I read something, anything… and know this is a great place. When I first started feeling sickly, I scrambled and searched for a place that would have information. I didn’t dare tell anyone in my little world here at home, because I didn’t want to worry them AND I didn’t want to tell them and make it real. I thought I could fix it, like I try to fix everything else in my life. By the time I finally was able to get in to see my doc, I found the Dear Thyroid community. It was right just a day or two before the “down for repairs” message came up. I knew I had found a great place, and poof I lost it. Thankfully through my utter fear of my illness, I braved the Facebook area and found what I needed. Just a response to me answering one of the questions that get posted. I got a response, to ME, with MY name. I was blown away. I am a backwards-assed country hick, me and online communities never have worked. Somehow I had allowed myself to think that I was alone. Whoever was on duty at DT that day on Facebook saved my sanity. You don’t even know. You are so right, words followed by actions are the thing that will get us through. I go in for a biopsy next week, and it is scary. But I know I can come here and scream/cry and ramble. Someone will see it, someone will say something. I am not alone.

    No one can ever tell you how scary it is to become sick, have Graves Disease, need a biopsy… you only know it when it happens. That is why this place, all of you make the fear just a little bit less… You understand. Your words are followed by actions, even if they are just more words. They are good and healing words.

    And I am rambling… Just thanks for saying what I feel Joanna

  10. Melissa, thank you for your generous compliments.

    You are so very right when you say that part of our purpose in life is to learn and grow. I think that’s one thing cancer has taught me, to look for the learning opportunities in all of life’s experiences. I believe that sometimes we are faced with hard situations to purify ourselves, to refine ourselves by walking through fire. I believe sometimes we are faced with hard situations so we can help others deal with the same hard thing. And I believe sometimes we may never know why we have to deal with hard situations, but I do know that I can always learn something about myself and about others.

    I’m having a hard time getting over the people who ran like the wind from me and cancer. It’s still so raw. I want to move past it, but every time I see this one group of friends and they yet again fail to follow through on their promise to walk this road with me, the wound opens up again. I’m working on moving on, but like all other aspects of living with disease, it’s not easy.

    xoxo

  11. Molly, I’m so glad to hear you have an amazing husband who is supporting you through this hard time in your life. I’ve learned to really cherish those people in my life who really know how to support me.

    When dealing with cancer and disease and surgery and treatment, we shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not our friends and family will support us. We should not have to feel the added stress caused by their absence. I’m so glad you have your husband, and I’m so glad you’re part of the Dear Thyroid community– we are here for you!

  12. Lisa Stiers says:

    Oh Amanda you are never alone with this. There are so many of us as I have found, if you ever need to complain or laugh or cry or ramble , rant or rave, I know I’m here! I so get the fear of what next with this disease. I know what it is like to know you are not you anymore and how scary that is. Then you want to tell love ones but you really can’t for whatever reason! I’m so afraid of what is next with this auto-immune disease and I may not have the support I need. My sister is so afraid of that too! She has thyroid also, we lean on each other more than we ever have before. She understands she has and is going through so much with this disease right now. You do have a hard time with this because you didn’t understand what it really can do, it doesn’t make you stupid or backwards, all it is, is that you have a hard time wrapping your mind around how what the world sees as a normal disease, really isn’t. When I went to the doctor and found out that there are more sysptoms than I ever thought and that it does effect every cell in my body, I was so blown away. The thought that so many are truely uneducated and they don’t understand that this could be serious hurts to say the least. My doctor has been great and cheering me on for finding a support group like this. I’m glad for that words of encouragement help me and then I can pass them on to this community to give so hope! Hay there are doctors out there that do understand that just taking a pill is not the total answer. We need to be watched and we need to know that this disease can cause , coma, heart failure, physical and mental problems. Hurray a dr. That gets it! We are just not a chart and a dr. Visit fee! So when you feel alone reach out, I or someone will be there for you. Good luck and you hang in there! Hugs Lisa

  13. Donna, you are right. Some people really underestimate the power of words. I had multiple people tell me “everything will be okay” after I was diagnosed with cancer. I hated hearing those words because the person saying them, while trying to be supportive, had absolutely no clue whether I would be okay or not. It was always hard for me to connect with those people.

    I love how your cousin, son’s teacher, and bff supported you as you were first dealing with cancer. What beautiful displays of love!

    I, too, have made new friends along the way, friends that I feel like I’ve known for years and years. And while I cherish their love and friendship, I still miss the support of those friends who promised to be there for me. Personally speaking, the presence of one friend does not negate the absence of another.

    Thank you, Donna, for the support you are always so eager to give!!

  14. Lisa, thank you for your beautiful comment. You are so very right—I’m very very fortunate to have a friend not only forgive me for not being there for her, but to go above and beyond in her show of support for me.

    I’m so glad to hear you have people in your life who are not closing you out. Friends like this really are sources of hope for us as we deal with our disease. We need to know that when we fall, and we almost always are going to fall at some point along the way, we will have somebody there to catch us. We need to know that we have people in our lives who will follow through with those promises and not let us crash to the ground. People like that make a difference.

  15. Bee, I absolutely didn’t know I was dropping the ball on my end. I didn’t know what it meant to support a friend through something like cancer until I was the one in need of the support. I think perhaps that’s one aspect of awareness that needs to be pushed—we need more social awareness and more support for those who are supporting friends/family members dealing with cancer.

    I love that somebody gave you and your mom a 14 lb. ham. How funny! What did you end up doing with it?

  16. Thank you so much for your kind words, HD. And thank you so much for connecting with B—I know she is grateful to get some insight on what to expect with her next stage of treatment. You’re wonderful for supporting her!!

  17. Teresa, thank you for being part of this community! I’m so glad to hear that you feel supported here in this space. We truly are here for you every step of the way!

  18. Amanda, you are not rambling. Your words are beautiful and heartfelt and I thank you for sharing so much of yourself. Thank you for sharing your story on how you found community. We value each and every person that makes up Dear Thyroid, including you, my dear.

    I want to reiterate what you said– you are not alone. Yes, dealing with disease is scary. It’s hard. It’s crippling. But we are here for you. Whether you want to scream, cry, rant, rave, or anything else, we’re here to listen and support you. Whatever you may be dealing with on any given day, we’re here.

    Thank you for being part of this thymmunity!

  19. Melissa Travis says:

    Hi Joanna,
    I’m so sorry that wound reopens.

    I have to admit there are MANY PEOPLE I walked away from – many people I considered toxic and many people I no longer speak to.

    As I’m leaving Atlanta I am looking to reconnect with a few people that I think I MIGHT be ready to talk to – I’m having more compassion now – and some of them are LONG GONE… ha. I realize that it is SO EASY to just fade into the ether when people get sick. It is just too hard to deal with sick people sometimes (not because of the sick people but because of what WE fear about sickness).

    I’m so so sorry that YOU are emotionally still having to look to your own emotional woundedness. I hate it for you. it is enough to be sick and look after your own health – let alone deal with THAT.

    Friendship and healing is important and powerful. Youth and vitality are NOT something that is in close proximity to understanding and compassion… nor is our “buck up and take it” culture.

    We are all learning to shed that old story. I guess, in this case, the sick shall heal the healthy.

    BIG HUGS.
    You are a leader. YOU are a rockstar.
    xo
    Melissa

  20. Dear Thyroid says:

    Joanna;

    Absolutely beautiful column — and so true. Actions speak louder than words. yet, when you’re a community of words, your actions (in words), can be so powerful and do so much good.

    THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS.

    xo

  21. Melissa, I think you’re right about the fear. Some people can’t talk about disease because of the fear associated with it. It’s as if talking about cancer will make them have cancer.

    I guess, in this case, the sick shall heal the healthy.
    Beautifully said. Unfortunately true.

  22. Thank you, DT. You know, this is a beautiful community. Yes, I know you know. But the people who make up this community do not support each other with empty words. It’s beautiful to see that kind of love and compassion and support displayed on a daily basis, 24/7.

  23. Laura H says:

    Dear Friend,

    I love you, Friend! You are awesome, amazing, and I am soooo blessed to call you one of my dearest friends!! Beautiful job on this column! You never cease to amaze me!

  24. Thank you, Laura, for teaching me how to really support a friend, and thank you for supporting me! You’re amazing yourself! xoxo

  25. Bee says:

    Betty An Bee and 14 lb. ham: once we figured out how to safely navigate the behemoth OUT of the fridge, we cut off as much as we needed for sandwiches 2 nights in a row and wrangled the damn thing back in the fridge. We barely dented the surface poor thing

  26. Bee, the mental image you painted is great. So funny!

  27. Nicole Wells says:

    Joanna,

    I want to give you a big hug right now! Thank you for writing this, even though I have not dealt with the cancer diagnosis, I have had too much of my share of illness and empty promises.

    If I hear the dreaded “I’m sorry, I wish there was something I could do.” one more time, I’m going to scream. There IS something you could do, and it’s not saying that and checking in every few months.

    xoxo,

    Nicole

  28. Hugs back at ya, Nicole!

    This is definitely NOT a cancer-specific issue. I, too, wish with all I am that people would understand that just being present is doing something. You don’t have to find a cure for my illness to actually do something for me, you just have to be here with me.

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