The following is a commentary from Morning Edition, Nov. 27, 2006:
I was up at the cancer center the other day, waiting for a friend. I just sat and watched all the people. You can tell the regulars right away. They walk with purpose. Off to the lab for blood work. Upstairs for chemo. They're the ones saying 'hi' to the nurses and doctors who've become their friends.
You can tell the people on their first visit just as easily. They have that lost look of new students on the first day of school — not sure where anything is or what they're supposed to do. The regulars have gotten past that deer-in-the-headlights look. Their faces show determination more than anything else.
I noticed one man in the lobby. He was wearing his bathrobe and he didn't seem concerned at all. I saw a young woman frantically looking for someone. I assumed they were father and daughter. When they found each other, they hugged. The young woman held on tightly. It was a very private moment... in a very public place.
Would they have done that before the man got cancer? Would they even have hugged, except on rare occasions?
I think one of the things cancer does is break down the walls of our pride. A doctor told me early on that cancer meant many people would want to talk about things I definitely didn't want to talk about. He was right. I have to talk about my body to strangers. I have to talk to my doctors about my greatest fears. I have to talk about my death. But it doesn't bother me anymore.
I don't worry as much about keeping up a facade, either. I have cried, more than I ever had before. I've been more open to friends and loved ones about how much they mean to me. Before I got sick, I would've been embarrassed to say some of those things out loud.
In the cancer wards, you see more physical displays of affection. A touch, a hand on the shoulder, some gesture meant to reassure or just let the other person know they're not alone. Cancer teaches that worrying what other people will think and being discreet is something we don't have time for.
What has happened, I think, is that we've all been humbled. Cancer has freed us to do the things we knew we should be doing all along.
I don't think I'll ever forget the image of that man in the bathrobe and that young woman holding on to each other so tightly in the midst of a crowd. For me, that's life as it should be lived.