The vignette where a friend came to sit with her during chemo but had to call up to get her last name before being allowed in is so very typical of modern life. Kindness to strangers — we all rely on it.
I had ovarian cancer, was single and living by myself. But going through treatment, I was never alone.
By Jennifer GaramMay 23, 2021 at 8:45 a.m. EDT
Two weeks after my 43rd birthday, the guy I’d been seeing broke up with me in a cold, emotionless text. I felt sad, and very, very tired, but I didn’t have much time to mourn the loss of that relationship because two weeks and three days after his breakup text, I was hospitalized for a week, during which time I was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.
Early on during my hospitalization, I realized I was better off without him. I was accustomed to doing most things alone, anyway, and I didn’t feel like I needed a relationship to help me get through this. My main — and only — priority was processing this life-changing information and doing whatever I needed to do to take care of myself.
During that week in the hospital, I had a laparoscopic biopsy, received a diagnosis of Stage 3 ovarian cancer, had surgery to implant a port (a device that’s placed under the skin, usually in the upper right chest area, through which chemotherapy can be administered) and was then started on chemo. Though I was not using dating apps at that point, they were still on my phone, so I was getting messages from guys while I was wearing my hospital gown, my hair in a knotted, messy ponytail and my arm attached to an IV. I joked with my friends that I should respond, “Meet me at the hospital if you’re up for coffee and chemo.” That would be a way to tell what someone was made of.
But I never responded to any of those messages, or paid any attention whatsoever to the dating apps lingering on my phone after that. The only thing I was concerned about was fighting for my life.
I’m single and I lived alone at the time of my diagnosis in October 2018, but early on I got the message that I was not going to have to go through this alone. Friends, family, acquaintances and strangers swooped in from all around to help me.
I set up a Google Doc for my chemo appointments so friends could sign up for shifts. And all my shifts were filled: some by close friends, others by people I hardly knew and one by another regular at a coffee shop I frequented — who texted me from reception at the infusion center the morning of her first shift to ask for my last name, because she was out front and they wouldn’t let her back to see me until she gave it. She’d offered to do the very intimate act of accompanying me to chemo without even knowing my last name.
My Brooklyn apartment superintendent took the heavy air conditioner out of my window when it got cold, and replaced my lightbulbs when they burned out, because during treatment I could no longer stand on chairs, precariously balancing, to change them. He told me to ask him if I needed help with anything, even if it wasn’t part of his job, and he’d do it.
Neighbors brought up any heavy packages left in the lobby for me and dropped off jars of homemade soup and containers filled with dinner. One person in my building let me store ice cream (one of the few things I could tolerate eating when I felt nauseous from chemo) in her freezer because my freezer didn’t work.
People in the neighborhood brought me groceries, home-cooked meals and cups of coffee on days when it was too cold or rainy for me to run out to a coffee shop.
A friend who’d moved to California a few years earlier set up a GoFundMe for me, a college sorority sister I hadn’t talked to in decades offered to buy me a working freezer (though I didn’t take her up on it) and a high school friend ordered matzoh ball soup to be delivered to me one night after chemo when I was too tired to cook.
My aunt and uncle sent me Uber gift cards. Prediagnosis, I’d walked or taken the subway everywhere, but with a compromised immune system during cold winter months, taking an Uber was safer (this was pre-coronavirus). My Mom, who lives in a suburb of New York City, visited me every day of my second week-long hospital stay three months after my diagnosis, when I had my debulking surgery to remove the cancer — and all my reproductive organs. She stayed at a hotel near the hospital and was by my side every day from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and slept in a chair at the foot of my bed overnight after my surgery.
When I was released from the hospital after surgery, my younger sister flew in from California to stay with me for a week. She has three young kids — her twin boys were 5 then, and her daughter was almost 3. So she had lots of experience caring for people who needed help with everything, which at the time was me.
That week, my sister cooked meals, shopped for groceries and did laundry, washing my clothing, towels and bedding. She helped me put on my clothes in the morning and take them off at night, and helped me get into my pajamas before bed.
I even needed assistance getting in and out of bed, because after such major abdominal surgery I couldn’t do it on my own, so she stood at my bedside and raised and lowered me. Before we went out anywhere, she tied my shoes and zipped me into my winter jacket.
Every night, she slept on an air mattress a neighbor had lent me, on the floor of my small studio apartment wedged between my dresser and bed. In the morning, she hoisted the air mattress up and leaned it against the wall in my narrow entryway.
When the “Lenox Hill” docuseries came out on Netflix last year, about a year after I’d completed active treatment and was declared NED (no evidence of disease), I quickly tore through all the episodes in a week or two. As someone who’s been in a hospital OR several times, but, obviously, unconscious each time, I loved seeing what happened after the patient went under. I loved seeing the humanity of the doctors, and their compassion and how they cared for the sick people under their care.
But there was one line in the show that upset me.
In a scene about a difficult case — a woman with a complex brain tumor whose husband is constantly by her side in the hospital — one of the doctors says: “That significant other often is the most important thing. And without that person by your side, it’s so much more difficult.”
Now, I haven’t formally researched this. I can’t point to any peer-reviewed studies. And I did not go to medical school. But from my experience as a cancer patient, I think this statement is wrong — or at least, only partially correct.
I believe you need love to go through a serious illness. But it doesn’t have to come from a romantic partner. You need other people. But it doesn’t have to be a significant other.
A few seconds later in that episode, the doctor finishes his thought by saying: “You see it all the time, that the patients with the families and with the close loved ones around them, they seem to do better. And it’s critical to the well-being more often than not.”
That feels more true to me. Your family can be your biological or your chosen family and your loved one doesn’t have to be a spouse.
I am extremely lucky that I had friends and family and such a strong community to help and support me through my cancer treatment. But this outpouring of love, connection and support was surprising to me. It’s not like I’d set up this huge support network as a single person, just in case I got sick one day. Before my cancer diagnosis, for years I’d felt lonely and isolated; disconnected from others; and like I lacked strong, reciprocal, supportive friendships. I’d longed for connection and community, and yet, pervasively felt alone.
Soon after my diagnosis, I’d asked a loved one to help me with something I needed and they said no. I was upset and disappointed, and my friend who lived a few doors down from me on my hallway comforted me and said: “All your needs will get met. It just won’t always come from where you expect it to.”
This absolutely proved to be true, and the support I needed at various times often came from surprising sources and in unexpected ways. I was single and lived by myself, but going through cancer treatment, I was never alone.
In our society, there’s this idea that you need a partner to take care of you when you get old and infirm, or, if you one day fall sick at a younger age, like I did. This is not true.
What you need is people. What you need is connection. And one way to go about getting the support you need during a serious illness is to tell others you need help. To reach out for support. And then — and this is the hard part — to accept and receive it.
As someone who was, prediagnosis, extremely self-sufficient, and still is, that was the hard part for me — asking for help and letting others help me. Realizing that I couldn’t do it all myself, as I’d done before, though, in all honesty, operating that way had always taken a toll.
I have a theory — again, not a peer-reviewed study, but a theory. The fact that I was single opened me up to getting more help from others than I might have received had I had a spouse, one primary person to take care of me. Because people knew that I didn’t have that one, live-in caregiver, and they rushed in to fill the void and pick up any slack.
Early on after my diagnosis, I recall someone saying to me, “We’re not going to let you go through this alone.”
I didn’t. And if you’re single, no matter how much you may fear having to go through an illness alone, you don’t have to, either.