The unexpected benefit of being a myCancerConnection volunteer

When I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2007, I decided to be an active participant in my cancer care. I joined a clinical trial at MD Anderson. I educated myself with materials from The Learning Center. I asked my doctors questions. I participated in support groups led by MD Anderson’s social work counselors. And I made myself available to other patients with similar diagnoses through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community.

While I was the instigator of most of these activities, it was the last one that offered me the greatest and most beneficial surprises. Over the years, I’ve received a number of calls from myCancerConnection volunteers. They passed along the contact information of patients with similar diagnoses who’d requested support. In each case, I called those patients promptly and did my best to respond to every question and offer my best advice. I felt completely inadequate.

A surprising friendship

Try though I did, it seemed that I could barely guess at what other people were going through. Our diagnoses might be similar, but our circumstances could differ considerably. For instance, I’d had a favorable response to a clinical trial. Sometimes, other people didn’t. So, how could I avoid reinforcing their despair if the cancer treatments that had worked so well for me weren’t working for them?

Then, I was asked to contact “Bob.” I reached out, and we communicated through phone calls and email exchanges. Bob had encountered several pitfalls along his cancer journey, but he seemed to be handling them well. One day, we discovered we’d both be in Houston at the same time for our checkups. We decided to meet in person and set up a lunch date.

Once we were face-to-face, Bob and I began talking not just about cancer, but about our day-to-day lives. And as we did, the nature of our relationship began to change. We didn’t expect one another to rescue or advise us. We simply shared our life stories. And before we knew it, a friendship had formed.

Stronger together

Thanks to Bob, I’ve really come to understand why talking with others is so important when facing cancer. It’s not because myCancerConnection volunteers give particularly sage advice or impart some special wisdom. It simply affords us the opportunity to be real with each other.

Knowing Bob is fighting the good fight reminds me that I am, too. And knowing a bit more about his life makes him more real to me, so I find myself thinking of him often. I live in the hope that he is thriving in his job, his home life and his community. I also know that he’s doing the same for me. Each of us has greater strength because of the other. And that’s been really comforting.

The value of authenticity

In the children’s book “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the Skin Horse explains that all the wear and tear on him is the price of being real. The missing button eye, the worn-off hair, and all the beaten-up appendages are evidence of having lived — and been loved.

That’s the case with many of us who live with cancer, too. Our wounds proclaim the reality of our journey. But because we’re no longer captive to the myth that we’re invulnerable, we have the freedom to relate to one another more openly. And when we do, we all benefit.

Whenever I call a new patient now, Bob has taught me to listen for the story behind the story. And when the next person’s story unfolds, I know I’ll find much in it that blesses my own life and strengthens me, too.

I’m content now simply being the real me. Because that, I have learned, is the best gift I can offer.

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