That Time I Asked the Cancer Version of the “Dumb Diabetes Question”

We’ve all rolled our eyes and stomped our feet at the ignorant diabetes phrases thrown at us over the years.

“You’re on the thin side.  How on earth do you have diabetes?”  Probably because my islet cells could care less about the size of my jeans.  Those aren’t the kind of “jeans” we need to focus on here.

These moments frustrate the heck out of me, but once I sarcastically detail the encounter on Twitter, I start to delve a bit deeper.  The people posing the questions do not live with diabetes each day.  Their fingers are not freckled from thousands of finger sticks.  The term “ketones” just sounds like a raspberry smoothie that Dr. Oz would recommend to get in shape.  “Scar Tissue” is nothing more than a Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

They’ve lived unscathed by diabetes, for the most part.  I can’t fault them for that.  Although I love all of you in the #doc and cherish the positive mark you’ve left on my life, at the same time, I wish that no one had diabetes.  I hope that those who do not have it gain a bit of perspective and inspiration by watching us carry the cross.  Sometimes that process takes time, though.

There is also a psychological element to the “dumb” questions.  They may not be so dumb, per se.  They are, rather, a defense mechanism.  Damn!  My friend suffers sometimes!  I want to control it and ease her pain.  She looks flustered.  I can’t just snap my fingers and make it better!  All of those thoughts roll through their minds while they watch me inject insulin or drop everything when the doctor calls.  Human beings, for the most part, want to help; diabetes is confusing when it comes to figuring out how. Fair enough.  I’m still learning, and heck, I’m the one experienced at living it.

The tables were turned on me recently.  I was in their shoes for a moment, and I asked the same silly questions because I didn’t know what else to do.

Providence is a small city.  As much as I poke fun of it, that’s part of the reason why I love it so much.  We have a mini community downtown.  If I need a break from work gossip, I stroll over to the local coffee shop, where I quickly observe that every office has its own dramatic story.

I walk by the Italian badass barber each morning- tough on the outside but soft on the inside.  His Chihuahua’s unbridled love for him confirms this.  When badass barber nods at me, I feel cool in the “I’m a high school freshman but the senior soccer captain just waved to me” sort of way.

I consider the disabled and the homeless my friends. They have taught me more about human resilience through our interactions than any school book will ever do.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those discussed here.

There is John- always smiling, always happy.  He lifts weights at the Y each morning.  The would-be-understandable-excuse of being in a wheelchair is the farthest thought from his mind.  His humble example inspires all of us who know him.

There is another John who is down on his luck but sharp as a tack intellectually.  The brain beneath the scraggly mop of hair is a curious, gifted one.

Agnes doesn’t yet know this, but she kept me in grad school when it was getting hard to stay afloat. She reminded me that education is a gift, no matter what the circumstances may be.

“I want you to know that I’m going to move eventually.  I won’t be sitting on this stoop much longer.  I hope you don’t think that I’m taking advantage when I ask you to buy my lunch.  I’m just… SO hungry.  But I’m going to get my GED.  And an apartment.  My health will improve and I can get a job. I take my lunch to the library and I study there every week.”

Finally, there is Deana. But that’s Sister Deana to you and I. She preaches the Gospel on the street corner, talks to the birds as they eat the crust from her sandwich, and blesses the passersby of Providence. Sister Deana hasn’t looked well recently. The cancer has spread, and I am more emotional about it than I like to show on the outside.

For years, Sister Deana has lifted my mood during my afternoon walks. She is blunt yet kind all in one, a humorous combination. “Got any blessings for me?” is translated to “Where’s my money?” Yet if I’m short on cash, she still has a few prayers to send my way.

She sleeps in the street after her chemo rounds while the young professionals are careful not to trip over her tired body.

“Is there some sort of help that the hospital can provide for you? It’s not good to be out here exposed to the cold and the germs right after chemo,” I explain, citing WebMD wannabe medical knowledge.

“I don’t want help. I want my independence,” she replies.

Me too, I acknowledge in my head, reflecting on all of the times that I have pushed helping hands away during my own health struggles.

Desperately hoping that she will somehow be okay, clinging to any sense of security that may still linger, I ask the dumb question:

“Well, the chemo must be making you feel better, right?”

Someone please slap me. Chemo and feeling good aren’t normally associated in the same sentence. I know this. But I am trying to control the situation, to convert my naïve wishes that my friend’s pain will somehow be eased into her reality. I don’t know the right thing to say, so I say the first thing that comes to mind. It is not the right thing, but it is something. And for a brief moment, I feel fabricated relief that perhaps my words were comforting.

How many times have my friends seen this scenario play out in front of them? They have watched me projectile vomit my lunch, the ketones too thick in my blood. They have witnessed the wrath in my verbal outbursts as I see spots from high blood sugars. They have felt helpless and useless as a vindictive disease beats its prey bloody. That prey is their friend. They want to make it better, but don’t know how.

Sometimes just being there is all we need to do.   

“Better?! Honey, I scream through the chemo!” she laughs.

But she doesn’t bite my head off, either. She doesn’t angrily snap at me about how I should have known better. She doesn’t roll her eyes or tell me how ignorant I am. Instead, she calmly explains how the chemo wipes out her energy, how she would rather be on the street where she is comfortable than alone in a scary hospital room. I nod my head as a wave of understanding consumes me.

She really doesn’t feel well because she doesn’t want a Snickers bar this time- just her signature can of Coke. I place it into her outstretched hands and leave her resting her head against the brick wall of the vacant building. The birds finish off the bread crumbs and fly away.



Please keep Sister Deana in your prayers.