What do you say when someone tells you they are dying?
I was confronted with that question Wednesday when a friend and frequent news source, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me of his terminal brain cancer.
“It’s stage four,” he said. “Without surgery, they gave me three months.”
It’s not the first time someone I know has told me such heartbreaking news.
I sat with my parents in a tiny examining room in August 1999 when an oncologist looked straight at us and said my Dad had lung cancer.
“It’s terminal,” she said.
Without surgery he had about six months to live. With surgery, he’d add a few months but his quality of life would be poor.
“I’m sorry but there’s really no hope,” she said.
I remember gasping for breath. My Dad gripped his cane tightly with both hands, then took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. My Mother clutched her purse and quietly cried.
We went through the same drill with my Mother a short time later. They spent their final months together in hospice care.
Then, a few years ago, I got a call from a friend. Her husband, my good buddy, had just received a diagnosis that he was terminally ill, stricken with a incurable degenerative disease that slowly cripples its victims and ends in death.
I left work immediately and drove straight to his house. I took him for a drive and we talked and cried and tried to convince ourselves there was hope in the face of the bleak prognosis.
Of course, the doctors were not wrong in either case.
Despite that experience, I found myself struggling for words Wednesday when the reality of mortality smacked me in the face once again.
“I’m so sorry,” I told my friend.
“You are in my thoughts and prayers,” I said.
And it was true. I had a hard time thinking of anything else the rest of the evening.
I’m not using his name because he doesn’t want the public to know.
Often, people don’t want others to know of their illnesses. They feel vulnerable or embarrassed or don’t want to be viewed as weak or seeking sympathy.
But I wish my friend would reconsider.
I recall the comfort my Dad and Mother received when their friends learned of their conditions. In their final months they enjoyed frequent visitors, many from people they had not seen in years. They learned how much they were loved and appreciated.
My buddy also was surrounded by family and old friends who reached out in comfort to him, his wife and children.
And I’ve heard wonderful reports about the positive impact friends and strangers alike have had by giving a warm emotional embrace to young Jonah Pfennigs, the 14-year-old Doherty High School freshman who is battling cancer and, hopefully, winning.
As a toddler, Jonah was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. At age 3, Jonah received a bone marrow transplant from his 4-year-old brother, Sam. Jonah recovered and on his 10th anniversary was considered cured, said his mother, Kim Pfennigs.
But in October, Jonah’s cancer returned and he immediately began chemotherapy while awaiting another bone marrow transplant. After many difficult weeks of treatment, Jonah finally received the transplant Feb. 10 and doctors declared it had grafted 10 days later — a key milestone toward recovery.
On Wednesday, as I was talking to my friend about his own surgery and upcoming chemotherapy, Jonah was leaving a Denver hospital with cautious optimism. He’ll spend a month or two in a sterile house where he’ll let his immune system recover so he can finally come home and hopefully get through the first critical year, post-transplant.
Kim tells me it did not seem natural to her, initially, to broadcast news of his illness to the world. But she’s glad she did. Upon learning of his relapse, Side Streets readers responded with an outpouring of support.
“It’s a great comfort to know people care about you,” she said. “And it’s a blessing to others to let them help. I’ve found people want to do something.”
Whether its the family who brings a meal every week or the simple “Get Well” cards, the impact is profound.
“The emotional support has been the best part of all this,” Kim said. “It’s huge. For example, Jonah received a box of cards and letters from a kindergarten class at Martinez Elementary School. He was so thrilled with them he wouldn’t let me take them home. He kept them with him at the hospital.”
Same for the letters he received from strangers who told of their own fight with cancer and encouraged him to fight through the tough days.
“They tell him ‘I’ve been where you are and you can get through it.’ It’s so incredible the support Jonah has gotten. And it’s so important,” Kim said.
So, to my friend and to everyone facing similar circumstances, you are in my thoughts and prayers.
And while I understand if you want to maintain your privacy and I respect that decision, I’d urge you to let people know. You may be surprised how many people stand ready to reach out and help. If you let them.