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A Friend Indeed

By: Janet Britton

"A friend helps in a time of need," my mom told me from the time I could toddle. But my friend, Genny, taught me about a side of friendship my mother never mentioned. Sometimes the best friend doesn't jump to help, but instead stands behind and nudges you to do for yourself.

I spent most of my first thirty-two years being a helper to friends suffering problems I was spared. But in August, l980, I became a statistic as the one in eight women who contracts breast cancer and my role switched to the "friend in need."

For three weeks I lay dependent in the hospital. Friends brought flowers and cards. They washed and curled my hair and sat guard duty so I could rest. One loaned me a shocking pink bed jacket to help me feel pretty, and another brought me herb teas and crackers to help me fight nausea. When my exhausted eyes refused to focus, friends read to me and jotted my letters for me.

And back at my home, others watched over my family for me--my trucker husband, teenage foster daughter, eight-year-old boy, and ten-year-old girl. Friends babysat, canned our garden's green beans and tomatoes, cooked special meals, and listened to my family's fears.

When I began radiation and chemotherapy treatments, dozens of friends chauffeured me the eighty-mile round trips to the hospital. Without fail, I'd return to find supper cooking on the stove, and a note propped on the counter: "Put your feet up tonight and relax. Love ya!"

At spring cleaning time, little elves whisked through my house while I underwent treatment. Wallpaper I bought for the kitchen miraculously appeared on the walls one day while I taught school. Friends routinely dropped by to run the sweeper or pick up a list of items I needed from the store.

To lift my spirits, people popped in to take me out for lunch or a piece of pie. Friends planned a surprise party and showered me with gifts of IOU's for gardening, washing windows, movie dates, etc. They touched my shoulder, hugged me; their love cocooned me.

But Genny did even more. Like the others she helped me; but unlike the others, as soon as she felt I was ready, she pushed me to help myself.

Many brought gifts. But Genny's gifts calculatedly nudged me toward independence. Two days after my surgery, she brought me an exquisite shade of pink nail polish and a manicure set, so I'd unconsciously exercise my left arm as I did my own nails. Next she brought me a mauve front-closing bra to encourage me to stuff myself and dress for the public.

Subtly she urged me to take charge of my life as before. She dialed the Cancer Hotline so I could listen to facts on breast cancer therapies. She brought me articles--from Psychology Today, women's magazines, newspapers--that warned of negative thinking's effect on recovery. She prodded me: "Be involved. Read. Question. It's your body. You must help yourself."

When I went home to recover, Genny continued to fight for my rest; but she fought so I could get up and do for myself. Others said, "Stay in bed. We'll take care of everything for you." Genny'd lull me to nap and then suggest something I could accomplish by myself.

For example, others said, "Teenagers have so many problems. Let Children's Services find another place for your foster daughter."

Genny said, "You love her like your own family. I understand why you feel Kris is so special. She's worth every ounce of energy you pour into her." And so I'd have more ounces to give to Kris and my husband and two little ones, Genny arrived daily to cleanse and rebandage my skin graft. She understands my aversion to any type of wound and helped her "friend in need" conserve emotional energy so I could go on with my life's work.

Others gave my sympathy when I complained, "I'm too tired to exercise my arm." Genny gave me encouragement to exercise in a balanced manner--not enough to irritate the area of surgery and lengthen healing time, but steadily enough that I could regain normal motion of the arm and shoulder and not suffer any permanent damage.

Even more importantly, Genny understood that if I were ever to be whole again my emotions needed the same balanced exercise as my arm. Most of my friends clustered into two extreme groups. Some insensitively dumped impossible problems and gossip onto my already-frayed emotions. Another group isolated me--denying me normal interaction. Genny avoided either of these errors. She sheltered me only until my fears began to heal. Then gradually she started to share problems with me, as before--her daughter's allergy attack, her husband's financial reversal, the depression of a mutual friend. Slowly, she directed my attention outward once again.

I counted the days until my release from the "patient-- cancer victim" role. To me the promise of health meant teaching high school, implementing a writing program, following the normal routine of a working housewife. But the surgeon threatened to extend my sentence when he told me I needed five weeks of radiation therapy and a year's chemotherapy.

Others told me, "Stay home. Rest Don't return to work until therapy's over."

While they frowned their disapproval, Genny said, "Let's go discuss your work schedule with your administration. Of course you'll be tired. But you'd be tired at home, too."

I had planned to finish course work for my Master of Arts in English by summer. In the months before my surgery I had worked hard toward that goal. When I talked about scheduling classes, others said, "Quit graduate school. It doesn't matter now."

But Genny understood it mattered very much to my emotional health. "Finish now," she urged me. "And do as well as before!" Genny knew I needed to prove to myself that cancer had no power over my mind, even if it did seem to control my body. I must feel like a productive person.

Genny realized that coddling one we love is not always kind. She worked to make herself expendable. Like a good parent, Genny carried me only until I could walk by myself. First she let me bounce safely on her lap, and then she held my hand while I wobbled beside her. She sensed when she could begin withdrawing her support--just moments at a time. Then she held out her arms and encouraged me to take steps alone. When I fell, she gave me a hug, a kiss, a word of hope, stood me up and let me try again.

Genny's friendship stretched me. When cancer threatened my life and my personality, she believed in me--and taught me to believe in myself. She cushioned me with her love. Then she pushed me towards my goals.

The very best kind of friend, Genny helped me plan for a future and "to live each moment" today.

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