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What not to say to someone who has cancer, and more of our most popular reader essays

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Sometimes it feels like the country bares its soul in The Globe’s First Person essay space. Readers will share the best of times and the worst, examining their lives with elegant, eloquent prose and often offering heart-scalding insight and advice. It’s a must-read for many, and we gathered the year’s Top 5 essays (published since last summer) to share them one more time.



Drew Shannon

What not to say to someone who has cancer

By Alana Somerville

I should have known. But at that particular moment, I had no idea what to say. So I asked my friend, a young mother with terminal liver cancer, “How can I help? Is there anything you need?”

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“A new, healthy body would be fantastic,” she answered.

I felt like an idiot. Of course that was what she wanted. But I couldn’t give it to her, so why on earth had I asked that?

Often, when we know someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, we don’t have any idea what to say, or we say or do the wrong things. I should have known better.

When I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 33, I had a hard time dealing with my diagnosis. It took some time, but eventually I figured out that I had to move forward and think positively. However, it was really difficult to keep up my spirits when some of the people around me said and did things that I still can’t quite believe.

There were the people who started their sentences with “At least …”

“At least it’s September so when your hair falls out you’ll be able to wear a hat throughout the winter.”

“At least you have two kids now because who knows what chemotherapy will do to your eggs.”

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“At least you caught it early because my friend didn’t, and now she’s on her death bed.”

And then there were also the people who said, “If I were you …”

When that happened, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, you’re not me, so stop right there.” Don’t try to sugar-coat this, and don’t try to find the silver lining. Please, just let me know that you can feel my pain.

My Dad was someone who didn’t know how to handle my diagnosis. When he showed up at my door upset and crying, it only made me think, “Maybe this is all worse than I realize?” Sure, if he hadn’t been upset, that would have been worse, but it also meant that my job shifted from caring for myself to consoling him. At a time when he should have been my rock, I was forced to be his.

When you’re dealing with this kind of internal struggle – to stay positive while it feels like your world is falling apart – you’d be amazed at how eye contact and non-verbal gestures can affect you. You already feel self-conscious, and the stares from complete strangers don’t help. When I was bald from chemotherapy – and I mean no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes – people gave me sympathetic looks when I went to the grocery store. I don’t need your sad eyes, I thought, because I am not going to die.

Even offers of help can be interpreted the wrong way. It may seem weird, but when you’re sick, having someone offer to help carry your groceries can make you feel weak. Try to think about things from the sick person’s viewpoint before you offer. Do you know them well? Do you know what they want? I had people who weren’t even my friends offer to buy my children Christmas presents, which I found so odd. I couldn’t help but think, “Hey! I’m still here and they’re my kids! Why would you want to take that away from me?”

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What did help? Some of my friends organized a dinner club and made meals that they would drop off at my house every other day. They wouldn’t stay to visit, unless I wanted them to. They put the dinners in disposable containers, which meant I didn’t have the added burden of having to wash and return their containers. I always connected with my friends to thank them, but they were respectful of the fact that I wasn’t always up for conversations.

That my friends didn’t have any expectations was so freeing for me. They simply gave. That felt so precious at a time when I simply didn’t have it in me to give in return. It was the gift of understanding and I still can’t believe how precious that was.

Other friends who felt too uncomfortable with the situation or with seeing me sick simply dropped off gifts at my door, things such as sweaters, books and bathrobes. To me, these incredibly kind gestures meant that although they didn’t really want to talk about things, I knew they were thinking of me.

What also helped immensely were words of encouragement, rather than questions. Comments such as, “You got this,” “You are the strongest person I know,” “The world needs you,” as opposed to just saying, “I’m sure it will be fine.” When I heard that last one, I couldn’t help but think, “How do you know?” whereas the former statements weren’t anything I could argue with. I also appreciated that these weren’t open-ended questions, asking me what they could do to help. The last thing I could do was to think of ways for people to help me.

This whole experience with cancer, and writing my memoir Holding on to Normal, has been an incredible learning journey. I am still learning. I still question what to say when a friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. When in doubt, I still run things by friends and comrades who are breast-cancer survivors.

When someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, remember that words of hope are better than no words at all. Don’t be a stranger and don’t feel awkward. Try to remember that this isn’t about you. Just treat them normally, the way you always have and like you always will. That in itself will give people hope, which is the biggest gift you can give.

Alana Somerville lives in Fort Erie, Ont.

Drew Shannon

In Newfoundland, random acts of kindness are an epidemic

By Adriana Anon

We were in St. John’s, and my husband asked our talkative cab driver what made him most proud to be a Newfoundlander.

“Our generosity and hospitality,” he replied in a strong local accent. “Your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, you won’t be left alone. Someone will pick you up, and they’ll help you out, and probably drive you home if you need. People here are kind like that.”

We knew about the Broadway musical Come from Away, which tells how 7,000 stranded airline passengers were generously housed in Gander when their flights were grounded on 9/11. But could spontaneous kindness possibly be the common quality of an entire province? Is it possible for attitudes and habits to spread through communities like a virus? The question lingered in my mind during that ride out to Signal Hill with my husband and teenage kids, heading out to explore on the first of a three-day vacation.

Little did I know we were about to experience some of that remarkable Newfoundland kindness.

We met Alma that same morning at the start of the North Head Trail by Signal Hill, the one that overlooks St. John’s and its harbour to the west, and the Atlantic to the east. On that bright blue-sky summer morning, the view from the trail was vaster and more alluring than we’d ever imagined.

Our teenagers hurried ahead, and as we lagged, admiring the scenery, two women in sunglasses and summer hiking gear stopped. They’d heard us discussing different routes; they asked if we’d like suggestions. They looked to be in their 40s, one blonde and one brunette, full of energy and both enthusiastic to share their local expertise. We listened eagerly, taking mental notes, until the pleasant blonde lady asked, “You have a car, right?”

I explained that they were out of cars at the car rental, so we’d decided on taking cabs to the different hikes.

“Oh no,” she said, “you need a car.” And then, as casually as if offering a squirt of sunblock, she said: “Take mine!”

Dumbfounded, my husband and I just smiled in disbelief.

“Why not?” She insisted. “Take my car; I won’t need it. You need a car to get to know all these places.”

“But you don’t even know us,” I said.

“That doesn’t matter,” she continued with absolute resolve. “Do you have a licence?”

Stunned, I looked over at her friend, the brunette smiling from behind her sunglasses, who shrugged and said, “That’s Alma.”

I walked away, not sure of what to make of it all. (Alma later told me that I seemed visibly distressed, as if I couldn’t handle the situation. The fact was that I had neither the rudeness to refuse nor the resolve to accept.)

Alma and her friend Renée continued talking with my husband. I could hear him telling them more about us.

“We’re from Uruguay,” he explained, “but we live in Ottawa.” This only seemed to strengthen Alma’s resolution.

“Oh you have to take the car then. You came all the way here? You’re only here for two more days?”

Forty minutes of hiking later, my family was cramming into the back of Renée’s car, while Alma squeezed into the passenger side carrying her friend’s empty childseat. Renée was giving us a lift to a nearby parking lot, where Alma’s car awaited.

“You’ll have to give us your address, Alma, so we can return your car,” I said. This simple comment drew nervous laughter from all of us, as if we were giddy kids in on a shared secret.

Everyone, that is, except my daughter, a young lady with a keen sense of proprietary. “There is,” she said as the family finally climbed into Alma’s borrowed black Acura, “something seriously wrong with what we are doing.”

Thanks to Alma, whose name means soul in Spanish, we spent the remainder of our time in St. John’s discovering different areas of the majestic East Coast Trail and its bordering cliffs, where the scent of sea air mingled with spruce. We watched pods of whales swim nearby. It didn’t take long to confirm that Newfoundland – remote, unique and unforgettable – was a place we’d chosen well to visit.

Every so often – as my family explored the countryside in her car – we texted Alma letting her know that everything was okay, and she texted back, letting us know that she’d told her husband, Ed, about what she had done, and he was fine with it. For our final evening, Alma invited us over for dinner. She and Ed made us feel immediately at home. We exchanged impressions of our peculiar meeting as if we were discussing a movie we’d recently seen starring ourselves.

Since the return to Ottawa, I have exchanged e-mails with Alma. She reminds me that we were “hard nuts to crack,” but she is grateful that we allowed her to help us. I confess, once again, how her story continues to amaze, and how it amazes me all over again each time I tell it.

People have different reactions: Some say it’s incredible, most agree they’d never lend their car to a stranger – but those who’ve been to Newfoundland are not surprised.

The reaction that lingers with me most is what Alma’s brother told her when she texted him that she had just lent her car to a family of strangers. He wrote simply, “That’s how you make new friends.”

I no longer doubt that, at least in Newfoundland, random acts of kindness are an epidemic.

Adriana Anon lives in Ottawa.

Drew Shannon

Social media hid my secret life as a drunk mom

By Natalie Fader

Glass of wine in hand, I’d scroll through my social media page and see the happiness I shared with the world. I’d also wonder how long I was going to lie to myself about my drinking being a problem. By the third glass those thoughts stopped and I’d continue to scroll and pour, scroll and pour. My online life did not portray my reality. And I hid my problem well.

New haircut selfies, family outings and motivational posts, you wouldn’t have assumed the curator of this life actually hated herself, but I did. There was something really scary about how easy it was to mislead people on social media.

I’d wake, every day on autopilot – to kids, the chaos, coffee, my phone. The routine became so regular it no longer required much mental effort. The problem with this is I stopped paying attention to myself. I wasn’t checking in. I was hurting. I was getting by, but only by buying into the so-called reality I shared, convincing myself that I was okay. But I wasn’t.

I felt sorry for myself for eating dinner alone. I was left inside my own mind with the person I resented the most. So, I drank. It started with one glass of wine and usually ended with a bottle, sometimes two. I hated myself because I couldn’t identify with who I was any more. I left my career to stay home with our two children and, like many moms, I had trouble adjusting to my new role. While my friends and followers saw the life I wanted them to see, inside I was messed up. A lot.

I drank and lied to myself; I convinced myself my husband was having an affair. I was certain that he chose work over his family. He was working for us, for our family, but I had trouble seeing it because I chose to take my hate for myself out on him.

I began to read stories about drunken mothers so I could tell myself I wasn’t like them. Instead, I recognized the justifying, and the hiding of alcohol. I understood that the amount I consumed was not healthy. I recognized how much internal damage had happened. This was a wake-up call, but I didn’t stop drinking. It was like someone had opened a door to my future. Only, instead of taking advantage of it, I panicked and slammed it shut.

In the middle of this madness I decided to go back to school to study nutrition. I so badly wanted to be something (anything but the lonely stay-at-home mom). I feared failure, yet I’d continue to drink on the nights I was supposed to be studying – better to have something to blame when my grades weren’t up to par! And getting a babysitter when my husband worked late so I could go out with friends did nothing but continue the drunken hiss of everything wrong in my life. Regardless of what appeared on my social-media feed, my reality had zero substance. I had completely disconnected from who I was. I lost myself.

On the fifth day of a drinking binge, I recognized a blackout on the horizon. How on earth could I take care of two small children, let alone myself? A little glimmer of light ignited inside and I knew if I could make myself vulnerable, I could expose this thing for what it really was – a problem. I picked up my phone and called a friend for help.

Pieces of that phone call haunt me – how many times I whispered “help me” and how I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t catch my breath. Pain had never felt more real. All of my emotions exploded in the most uncomfortable and raw way. I was speaking to another person, but for the first time, I was listening to how I felt. I was coming to terms with where the unhappiness came from and – in that moment – began to develop trust with myself.

The next day when I was sober, I exposed myself to everyone. I called my parents first (who immediately came over) and then sent texts and group messages to my friends. I needed everyone to know that I was building myself back up. I decided alcohol could no longer be a part of my life. I was supported but along with that support came judgment. Some didn’t take me seriously. Maybe they didn’t understand.

When the drinking stopped I had to relearn a lot of things, such as existing around alcohol without using it, how to strike up interesting conversations, how to have my own opinions without the crippling fear of what I thought people would think of me. I had to learn to eat right, to take control of my health and to stop sabotaging my goals. I had to learn to like myself again.

It’s working. I feel lighter. Physically, after dropping 35 pounds, and mentally, I’ve dropped the guilt. I feel strong. But the rawness of that self-destructive time lives inside me. I don’t, however, feel shame for messing up and I respect that about myself.

During my recovery, my posts became far and few between. I often felt so delicate and emotional that I couldn’t post the vulnerability on social media right away. But when I did post it was real: a poem that I wrote about a picture I took of a stormy sky, or posts of my husband’s recently opened restaurant. Eventually I was even able to address my sobriety and struggle.

Now, I can honestly say I am happy. As I continue to pursue my certification in holistic nutrition, I don’t fear failure, but fight it. I’m impelled to motivate others, and in doing so, I relive the painful, messy parts of my life, but those raw parts are what drive change.

Where I once used social media to cover up and silence my secrets and demons, now it is my voice and platform: together we can address the things that hurt us and talk about it, safely.

Natalie Fader lives in Toronto.

Drew Shannon

In the midst of a midlife crisis, I had to clean house to clear my mind

By Alex Pope

Depression is an ongoing state of misery, like a mental UTI with no antibiotics in sight. And while as they say, “misery loves company,” I’m not sure it’s true in reverse. Though most depressives seek solace from others, a respite from their own unpleasant internal monologues, theirs is often not the company people wish to keep: After five minutes in any social gathering, I could pretty well clear the room.

At 52, and on the brink of menopause, I fell into a deep depression that lasted three years. Though the overt causes were numerous and complicated, and to a certain degree understandable (my father had died and my mother, as it turns out, was terminally ill and my career had gone further south than Miami), people couldn’t understand why I felt so lousy.

In the end, like with many things in life, I had to figure things out for myself.

I left my soul-sucking job and pursued part-time work. I took walks in the fall morning light. I picked up tennis again, a sport I had once adored but in my lassitude had ceased to enjoy. I prepared a good meal.

And then one day, I decided to tackle my house.

In the three years of my mental undoing, our home had fallen into a similar state of disrepair. If I was going to attempt the challenge of clearing my head, why not begin with my nightstand?

Tidying a surface of 40 cm² is how I began my journey back to health. I started there and didn’t stop for the next year-and-a-half, until I had cleared and fixed up my entire three-storey home.

As I recycled old files and mounds of paper, gave away or threw out broken furniture, recarpeted and redecorated, I found my own mind airing out as well.

What had taken me in the previous years hours or even days to accomplish, I could now check off in a matter of minutes.

As my mind freed itself of the clutter of anxiety and regret, I was able to function not only as well as I had before I had fallen ill, but several cylinders faster.

And this heightened awareness and effectiveness got me reflecting on the other contributing factor to my depression. Namely, the big M.

People love to go on about everything that starts to go wrong after 50, especially for women. Memory and bone-density loss. Weight gain and depression. Menopause, at least in North America, is considered an ailment, something to be treated and dulled with hormone replacement therapy and a stiff upper lip.

But as I discovered with my own passage through the tumultuous early 50s, menopause is more a process than a blight, and if we’re open to it, a period of wonderful unfolding. If we can navigate the shoals of anxiety and self-doubt, the current of fluctuating hormones can push us out to a sea of much greater possibilities. Once I stopped and listened to its clarion call, my brain went into creative overdrive. I returned to freelance writing and photography. I began to sell my photos at auctions, and write with conviction about topics I had feared for their complexity.

To paraphrase the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, in our 50s, while our midriffs expand, so does our wisdom.

The decade often begins in a kind of mourning. With a loss of their cycle and its procreative powers, many women feel their attractiveness fading as well. But if we can (re)imagine menopause as simply another phase of our womanhood, and not the end of it, the decade can often end with a renewed sense of self, a rebirth of sorts.

Dr. Christiane Northrup, a specialist in the menopausal spectrum, likes to call it “a wake-up period for the soul.” With the surges and reductions of estrogen levels in the body, things that are normally hidden surface. She compares the menopausal time frame to premenstrual syndrome since in both situations spiking hormones influence a woman’s perceptions and, consequently, her behaviour.

Not surprising, then, that women in both stages are characterized and caricatured as moody and unpredictable. But according to Northrup, that’s really the point. Without slipping too much into new-age axioms such as “in progesterone lies truth,” Northrup maintains quite credibly that a kind of individuating process is taking place. Realizing that their time as primary caregivers of children is now behind them, menopausal women are often in a position of searching out new roles for themselves. Northrup describes the movement away from self-sacrifice to the family unit toward self-exploration as a kind of adolescence in reverse.

So it was with me. As I quite literally cleared house, I unearthed parts of myself that had laid dormant for years. After all, as all good Jungians will tell you, the house is a metaphor for the soul.

The onset of menopause can present itself (as it did with me) as an emotional crisis. But, as with all self-respecting crises, it can lead to positive change.

While I certainly didn’t enjoy the menopausal preamble, I am now reaping the rewards of the passage. Women need to experience the agony of hormonal fluctuation in order to derive the accompanying ecstasy of a new and emboldened self.

And while it’s true that I have gained a stubborn 10 pounds around my middle, emotionally I have never felt lighter. I’m immeasurably grateful for my renewed intellectual vigour and creative output, and happy, so happy to share it.

Alex Pope lives in Toronto.

Drew Shannon

How do I know when I’m supposed to retire?

By David Sheffield

“So, will you be the next one?” My much younger colleague is standing by my desk with a big smile. I pretend to not understand, but I know what she’s asking.

Canadian workplaces have been hit with a wave of retirements so massive that some have tagged it the grey tsunami. The term sounds ominous, conjuring up legions of aging people, such as myself, about to crash on the shore of an unsuspecting society – and in our drawback, drain the treasury and suck away the wealth of subsequent generations.

The demographics of this aging population are well known. In 1945, the end of the Second World War was celebrated with a prolonged bout of procreation that lasted for 20 years. The baby boomers – some 8.2 million in Canada alone – have fought a determined battle, but time is winning.

As a typical boomer, I have worked for more than half my life, my labour consuming perhaps the best years. Whether we like it or not, what we do goes a long way to define and, if we are lucky, enrich us. So how do we know when to stop? How will I know when to stop? Milk has a best-before date, tires have tread-wear indicators, but what about boomers? We admire and miss those who go out at the top of their game, beckoned by a bucket list brimming with challenges and possibilities. Then there are those who soldier on long after their campaign has ended.

I always knew that I did not want to be the old man in the corner. In my first office job, there was an eastern European fellow who reacted to almost everything with an incredulous guffaw and a dismissive hand motion. Nothing could, would or should change and we were crazy to think otherwise. We viewed him as a curiosity, an artifact, a communal granddad and an object of pity. His last major pronouncement in 1989, just before he retired, was that the Berlin Wall would never come down.

At the downtown station where I board the train for my morning commute, there is a poster ad for a personal-injury lawyer. Weathered but handsome in his white hair, sharp blue suit and power tie, he exudes confidence and wisdom and you just know he commands respect. No old guy in the corner, this man is in the corner office. He is the senior employee who we would like to be. Yet, for many, the final years are the worst of their career, feeling that their experience and expertise are utterly wasted. On a good day in the office, when I’m filled with accomplishment and stimulating engagement with colleagues, there is nowhere else I’d rather be. But on a bad day, I feel like a ghosted icon on my computer screen – there but not there, slowly sliding into irrelevance.

My company recently moved into a bright new office building: open plan, cubicles, all clean lines and glass. Goodbye spacious private office. We are like eggs in a crate now and I am in a corner. We have stand-up desks that rise with the push of a button and most of my colleagues now work standing, with headphones and music to quell the noise. This environmentally certified building recycles rainwater for use in the washrooms. A sign advises us not to drink out of the toilet or urinals. I feel as if I’ve landed in a new world and do not quite know what to make of it.

Some feel that to retire is to die. With the end of compulsory retirement in Canada, the decision went from a fixed date to a major life choice. Turning to the wise oracle of our time, Google, I search: When do you know that it is time to retire? Most answers are financially focused: “When you have saved 25 times your anticipated annual expenditures.” One site tackles how to be emotionally ready to quit work: “The ideal time to retire is when the unfinished business in your life begins to feel more important than the work you are doing.”

Sometimes I look for a sign, thinking I might pull the plug when someone stands up to offer me a seat on the daily commute. I ward this off daily by regularly offering my seat to others and, when standing, try to look relatively stable and comfortable even as my aching back screams for a seat.

At our office, the retirements go pretty much to script. Cake is served, a slideshow plays, eliciting remarks on how young everyone once was; speeches recount some career milestones – perhaps contributing to a new accounting system, being an enthusiastic member of the softball team, or maybe just having just been there a long time. The retiree, often with obvious discomfort at being in the spotlight, acknowledges the accolades, saying they will miss the people but not the work. And then they are gone. When my time comes, will I genuinely feel no regrets or just wish I could start over?

I stay in touch with recently retired colleagues and friends and, of course, the first question I ask is, “How is retired life?” The standard reply: “How did I ever find the time to go to work every day?” Like recent converts to a new religion, they speak of having the luxury of time, being able to savour the morning paper, travel at will and take up pickle ball. Pickle ball, promoted as: “the serious sport with the funny name that keeps you fit, socially engaged, and alert.” Will pickle ball be my retirement salvation?

Is time off more precious when it is scarce — an afternoon, a weekend, a three-week vacation? My father used to lament that he could never get everything done that he wanted to, “even in a month of Sundays.” Do I want a month of Sundays or years of Sundays? Would too much time go from being a blessing to a curse? Will I end up “just sitting at home growing tenser with the times,” to borrow a line from Bruce Cockburn? Yes, I could see that as a default option. It frightens me.

My still-smiling young colleague jolts me out of my thoughts. “So, will you be the next one?” I can tell that she, 20 years from now, will quickly answer, “You bet, I’m out of here asap!” Instead, I reply, “I’ll let you know. Just working through a few details.”

David Sheffield lives in West Vancouver.

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