Being Present

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Being diagnosed with cancer is like entering a dark and unfamiliar place. Imagine being suddenly transported deep inside a cave. You sense creepy things all around and it’s hard to see the path that may lead you out. It’s disorienting and scary.

This metaphor was suggested to me by Reverend Tim Dean of Cayuga Medical Center’s Department of Spiritual Care. He went on to describe the role of a hospital chaplain as being present with people when they’re in these dark places.

Darkness is a good metaphor for the uncertainty that accompanies cancer. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I was diagnosed with the disease. The cause of the cancer was unknown, more than one treatment was possible, and my future was less than guaranteed. We all live with uncertainty, but with cancer, that uncertainty is palpable.

At the Cancer Resource Center, we train new volunteers to provide assistance to those affected by cancer. The volunteers are taught to listen, provide emotional support, and identify resources. Most of all, our volunteers and staff provide a sense of presence. That is, we’re there with people when their world seems so uncertain.

All of us – not just chaplains and cancer center volunteers ─ have the ability to be present with friends and family who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Too often, loved ones assume that their most important role is to fix the problem. It’s not. Their more important role is to be there beside the person with cancer.

It’s possible to be present event if you live elsewhere. I recently talked with a woman whose best friend sent her a daily e-mail of support during her months of treatment. Those messages meant so much to her that she hand-copied each one into a notebook. She cried when she showed that notebook to me.

That kind of friend adds light to the darkness and makes it a less scary place.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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