One thing that terrifies me about cancer is the idea that friends will stop being emotional with me and instead make my misfortune the center of everything we talk about. To keep moving forward I want to know, and share, what’s making you happy, yes, but also what’s annoying you. “You have to empower the other person in any relationship to be as much of themselves as they can be,” Dr. Norlock said. It turns out that griping — and hearing the gripes of others — is a central part of me feeling like me.

We all struggle. Even those of us working through particularly difficult moments in our lives have the capacity to empathize with others, and for me at least, empathizing feels good. Throughout the pandemic, and now as we watch the horrors of the war in Ukraine, it’s easy to feel that unless our circumstances are the worst, we’re undeserving of any compassion at all.

This is just wrong. For one, it makes us less likely to ask for the help we need, and two, it creates a power dynamic in which the person who is struggling is somehow beholden to the listener, rather than acknowledging that we all move through tough times and the person bringing my family a casserole while I’m at chemo today, may someday in a few months, or a few years, need a meal, or child care, or a ride while she grieves the loss of a parent or grapples with a chronic illness.

We are not competing in the suffering Olympics. We live in an unjust world. I often feel unworthy of complaint as I head to chemo at a dedicated cancer center in my car that’s paid off, my stupidly expensive cellphone pinging with well wishes from friends and neighbors letting me know that they will be bringing enchiladas over later. Being sick is incredibly resource-intensive, and I’m well aware that I have more than many people. But recognizing that others have it worse doesn’t change the fact of my own suffering — which is real.

My daily life is spent balancing the practical with the existential; as I piece together a summer of camps and activities for my children, there’s a subnarrative in the back of my head wondering how they will remember me if I die, and what I can do to prepare them for that. The light and the heavy are inextricably bound together, and this is really always the case. Close to 40 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, and we’re all going to die of something. The reality of that is just closer to the surface for me right now.

When you have cancer, you hear a lot about the importance of a positive outlook, and to a certain extent that’s true. But looking on the bright side can start to feel like a script I’m performing rather than an actual communication of what I’m feeling. When I’m complaining about how annoying it is to have to constantly vacuum up my own hair, as if some kind of giant cat lives in my house, and I’m met with a sympathetic ear and fellow feeling in the form of a gripe, that feels honest. I feel like myself, not the sad cancer mom who can think only about her mortality.

The truth is that I’m both of those things. I’m aggressively optimistic, out here living my life, making vacation plans, reading bedtime stories and working. I’m also scared a lot. And it helps me to know that one of my worst fears — becoming someone deemed worthy only of sympathy rather than a fully reciprocal friendship of shared triumphs and disappointments — hasn’t come true.

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