By Alex Mandarino
I consider myself an introvert. Many might disagree with that thought after spending a weekend with me, but when it really comes down to it, that is the persona I’ve always embodied. I tend to get overwhelmed in large crowds and much prefer a night in with a few close friends. The outpouring of support that followed my cancer diagnosis felt unprecedented and unlike anything I have gone through before or will ever experience again!
I chose to share my diagnosis and subsequent experiences through social media, which I’m sure sparked a lot of recognition and created the onslaught of well wishes, “get better soons” and “if you need anythings.” It truly meant more to me than I ever thought it would. People I hadn’t heard from in a while, people I thought I had never had a real connection with, were coming out of the woodwork to offer me support. Even if it was only a kind word or a short conversation, each interaction impacted me in its own way.
I’d be remiss if I told you I could quote each message, phone call, or text I received. A lot of them were similar; some were brief and others took up multiple bubbles in my Messenger folder. One of my closest friends was so emotional she cried in the middle of her school library. However, there are a few memorable moments that stick out:
My two good friends, Colin and Arlen, came to visit me about a week into my month-long inpatient stay at Princess Margaret Hospital. After a few minutes of pleasantries, Colin reached into his backpack and pulled out a Braun razor.
“All right buddy, you’re gonna shave our heads so all three of us look the exact same!” He meant it, too. I mean, I had the razor in my hand and there was no hesitation on their ends. Naturally, I couldn’t go through with it. Imagine them walking into the office at work the next day and getting told “Excuse me, I think you’ve wandered onto the wrong floor.” It was the thought that counted. Their willingness was more than enough to personify how good friends they are.
About a week later, I had a tough day. Mentally I just didn’t want to be awake; physically I was pointing to indicate yes and shaking my head to comment no. To top it off, I had an emergency CT scan mid-way through the day and was NOT interested in it one bit. When I was finally wheeled off the elevator at my floor, my friend, Claudia, was sitting in the indoor pavilion waiting for me, and she was carrying a wrapped box.
I knew she had planned to visit, but I has no idea she was coming that particular day! She had waited a full seven hours to see me as the complications in the day kept me away from seeing anyone. We spent a few hours chatting in my room, and she placed the box on my bed. Inside, there was hand cream, cards, fuzzy socks, a water bottle — you name it! It was such an intimate and kind gesture, and it’s probably the best gift I’ve ever received to this day.
What do these two stories have in common? Neither are particular grand gestures. They aren’t extravagant, they aren’t super public, they are quite small, but they’re the first two experiences I think of when it comes to friendship and how that shaped my cancer story.
I try and emulate these experiences when I navigate the young adult cancer community. Like I said, I tend to be an introvert, and anyone in the community understands that most days can be quite isolating to begin with. Cancer almost forces you to be an introvert for a certain portion of time, and quite often, it’s for longer than we expect. When we are on our own, or feel like there is a giant weight on our shoulders, small gestures can have a lot longer impact than we might imagine.
I have a friend that I talk to regularly, one that I met through YACC about a year and a half ago. We’re both of a similar age, and live fairly close. Obviously, COVID-19 has affected our ability to get together as often as we’d like. Even so, we text each other once a week or so to check-in. Some conversations might go on for a few hours. Some last four or five total texts. In either scenario, it often doesn’t matter what is said, but that there is someone else out there checking in on you and rooting for you to be on the right track.
I appreciate little gestures more than extravagant ones more often than not. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to send out a small gift, crack a joke, or call someone and check in for 30 minutes. When I went through my initial stages of cancer I felt extremely alone. I knew I had family around me and friends to stick by me, but when they are out living their lives, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be there for you when you need them the most. When I would receive a text, a call, even a meme sent to me, it could sometimes set the tone for an incredible day ahead.
I know I’m not the best communicator at times within the cancer community. It’s something I’d like to work on. Not only for me, but for the people who need that connection the most. One thing I love so much about YACC and the young adult cancer community at large is that it doesn’t take a massive event to move mountains. Every joke, vulnerable story, positive affirmation, and kind gesture can impact someone for as long as they need it. If we can all keep that mentality in mind, we’d have the closest community on the face of the earth.