Cancer and community

By Jeffrey Betcher

Maybe there should be a more uplifting title to this article, not just because it might be gentler on you, dear reader, but also because there is so much about “cancer and community” that is positive.

It’s a strange way to start a sentence, but…  The good thing about dying is how it can make a person feel more alive than ever, a phenomenon that can extend to the family, friends and community of the person dying.  Most of my relationships are healthier as a result, just as the hole my death will leave in my community has clarified.

When you’re sick, it’s hard to remember this:

Death isn’t just about the dying. It’s also about those left behind.  I’ll be pissed at myself enough to come back for a do-over if my friends and neighbors are shocked to learn of my death. Ideally, I will have included them in my journey so that whatever beauty there might be in my passing will help balance the grief.

In past updates about my own illness and how it relates to the community of place I love so much, I’ve talked about how those living in traditionally under-served communities like Bayview can be at higher risk for all sorts of diseases than those living in more affluent places.  That’s something communities can help address, primarily through education and advocacy.  More

I’ve also talked about how my neighbors have helped me in ways that only neighbors can, and how being part of a local community improves my odds. Wherever you live, when it comes to being sick, the closest support is next door if not in the house with you.  Clearly, being part of a community comes with benefits for the sick person.  More

We’ve lost two more neighbors to cancer here on my block of Bayview in just the past couple of months. One of them a relatively young long-term resident, something that may speak to the incidence of cancer rates here.  The community response as I’ve observed it speaks to the value of social networks to getting through tough times. While it may be impossible to understand loss suffered by others, folks in Bayview seem to understand that acknowledging it and reminding those in grief that they are not alone makes a difference.

Connecting with the people and physical environment where we live takes some effort. But I believe it’s important. A sense of community contributes to a better life for even the healthiest neighbors. And when a community member dies, the community context helps make sense of the loss.

I’ve come to think that a person with a life-threatening illness or injury has a unique role to play in their community that goes beyond being the receiver of help from neighbors.  Active awareness of death, something we will all grapple with one day, can be depressing. But it can also make each day more valuable.  Every word and act can be more compassionate, intentional and responsible.

Trust me on this: get a terminal diagnosis, expect to change in practical ways. No one could blame you if you lowered the blinds, powered-down your phone and burrowed under the covers. On the other hand, you could find yourself picking up litter in the SuperSave parking lot, waving at the person across the street who you had been angry at for some reason you can’t quite recall, seeing beauty in precisely those things that had made your life less beautiful the day before your diagnosis….

Folks have told me that by witnessing my journey (and by my willingness to share it) they are living life more fully and dealing with their fears more successfully. It seems that I am contributing to my community in a new way these days: by living with death, openly. Sometimes, building community is as easy as breathing.

Get a recent update on Jeffrey’s health and cancer treatment, and a whole lot more, by going to CaringBridge.org and searching on his name.

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