“Even if you are surrounded by lovely people, having cancer is often so lonely”

“Even if you are surrounded by lovely people, having cancer is often so lonely”

Attention and support are vital, says Caroline Griep (55), who has metastatic breast cancer. When she accidentally eavesdropped on a conversation in a coffee shop, she had to react.

I like to start my day with my laptop in the coffee shop on the corner. To be among people for a while. Work a little. Have a chat with the student girls who work there. Sometimes that even becomes whole conversations. It gives me it Cheers-feeling: ‘Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name’. That idea.

This week two young women came to sit at the table in front of me, I guessed my mid-thirties. Sometimes people talk so loud you can’t escape their conversation, they didn’t, but somehow I got sucked in anyway. The snatches I caught told me about the beginning and dead lonely cancer journey of the woman who sat with her back to me. From the questions her friend asked, I gathered that she hardly told anyone about hospital appointments. That those who did know just forgot. That she sat alone with her doctors and didn’t ask for a lot of things. That she could always hear her mother’s voice in her head, who had said all her life: ‘don’t complain, be strong’. That she found it difficult to talk about it. If she didn’t, she could still pretend it wasn’t there.

My heart broke into a thousand pieces, it literally grabbed me by the throat, the tears could hardly be held back. I myself have been living with metastatic breast cancer for a few years and even when you are surrounded by attention and kind people, having cancer is often so lonely. In the end, no one knows how you really feel. However, attention and support are vital to keep it up. My sister who always accompanies me to the hospital. Who endures with me my anxiety attacks that are sometimes the order of the day. The friend with whom I can and can cry like no other when I’m sad. My daughter who texts three times a day to ask how things are going. The messages on the day of an exciting result. The cups of tea and lunches, the cozy stay with dear friends for a few days. I wouldn’t know what to do without it. This woman didn’t get all that warmth. She denied it to herself, because she didn’t know how to ask. That can also be so difficult, but it has to be done.

Of course I realized it was none of my business, but it was stronger than me. So when she accidentally looked at me, I just had to say, ‘I’m sorry to hear your conversation, but you can’t do this alone, you really don’t have to, take people around you with you in this process. I’m sick too and I know how hard it can be.’ Her friend nodded in agreement, who had listened to her with concern all along.

Then I moved to sit somewhere else, so they could continue talking without my ears on the table. When I came in the next morning for my daily ginger tea, she turned out to have brought me another note in the afternoon: ‘Thank you for your words of support! Love, L.’


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