It's easier to talk about breast cancer in the abstract, in the clinical, in the removed. In a month focused on breast cancer awareness, it's easier to list statistics and facts, to give a checklist of things to do for preventative care, or links to resources of support for those who need them. It's harder to talk about the personal, the near and close, the fearful. It's hard to talk about things that scare us, and breast cancer holds a lot of fear inside it.
Cancer is not clean and easy and straightforward. It's messy and it's confusing and it's painful, at times unimaginably so. When we are sick – when we are fighting to bear unbearable things – the people around us try so hard to find the right thing to say. There's a tendency to want to say something positive, something hopeful about this terrible thing that's happening, to find some way of lifting us up. People talk about new treatments they've heard about, or diets they've read are best. They talk about someone they know who is even sicker than us. They talk about our courage and our faith. They smile wide and tell us we look fantastic. They can't quite meet our eyes. We get it. We do. Their hearts are in the right place.
In 2010, I Am Second filmed with Janelle Hail, a breast cancer survivor and founder of the National Breast Cancer Foundation. When Janelle was first diagnosed at 34 years old, there was fear and there was grief. All the unknowns and uncertainties multiplied worry. "When I heard the word cancer," she said. "I thought it was a death sentence."
In the hospital, as Janelle recovered from her mastectomy, the nurse on duty was an acquaintance that she recognized from her church. When the nurse was finished taking Janelle vitals, she could have made small talk. She could have said one of the things that people always say. But, she didn't. "She pulled up a chair and sat at my bedside, and without saying a word, reached across the bed to take my hand," Janelle wrote on her blog. "For about five minutes, she held my hand in the semi-dark room and didn’t say a word."
Here's the truth: sometimes there are no right words for things that are painful and difficult and scary. But, there is still love. There is still care. There is still comfort. Sometimes, silence and presence can be more powerful than any words could be. "This dear lady gave me a gift of understanding and hope by not making me struggle to hold a conversation or make excuses for why such a terrible thing happened to me," Janelle wrote. "It was like having Jesus holding my hand and enveloping me with His love."
In 1991, Janelle founded the National Breast Cancer Foundation to help increase life-saving awareness and education about breast cancer, and to provide free mammograms and medical resources to those most in need of them. "The mission of the foundation has such life to it," she told us. "...Giving [women] not only physical help but emotional support also."
If you're battling breast cancer today, we wish we had the right words to say. We're sorry that we've sometimes said all the wrong things, and minimized your suffering even when we didn't mean to. We're sorry that you're in pain. We're sorry that fighting for your life so often feels like a battle that you wage alone. You are not alone. We see you fighting and we stand with you. We believe that there is hope.
You can watch Janelle's full film with I Am Second here.
For more information about the National Breast Cancer Foundation or to donate a free mammogram to someone in need, visit their website: nationalbreastcancer.org