My Moonshot: Making Cancer Less Lonely

Emily McDowell
Dec 12, 2016 · 3 min read

In August of 2000, when I was 24, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After a few weeks in the hospital with a secondary infection and 8 months of treatment — six cycles of chemo and 30 days of radiation — I was declared to be in remission in June of 2001.

One of the first things I learned was that most people in their 20s have never known someone their age with cancer. I know I hadn’t. And so, it turned out that the hardest thing for me about being sick wasn’t any of the things we normally hear about: losing my hair, throwing up from chemo, baristas at Starbucks calling me “sir” — it was the loneliness and isolation I felt when people in my life disappeared because they didn’t know what to say or do, or just didn’t know how to -be- around me.

At the time, I didn’t have enough life experience or perspective to know that it wasn’t unusual for people to shy away when confronted with cancer, and it wasn’t my fault. As a result, I came to the very painful conclusion that this had happened because there was something wrong with me, and I was sad and angry and resentful. So, when I was done with treatment, I just wanted to put it all behind me and go back to “normal” as fast as I could. It would be about ten years before I was ready to see anything positive that came out of the experience of being sick.

And then, in 2011, my college roommate Amy got cancer. Even though we were all in our mid-30s now and slightly better equipped to handle hard things, I saw it again: most people really struggled with what to say or do. Because I’d had cancer too — a very different kind, but still cancer — people asked me for advice on how to be with her, what to talk about, how to show up. And I had a big realization: my experience as a cancer survivor, which I’d tried so hard to leave behind, had given me a perspective that could help make things easier and less lonely for Amy.

Seeing things from the other side also helped me understand that people’s pulling away from me when I was sick wasn’t about ME not being worthy. It was all about fear. In our culture, very few of us ever learn how to talk about things like illness or loss or death — any of the things I call “death-adjacent.” So when we’re confronted with those things, it can be incredibly scary and uncomfortable. Here’s a crappy irony about being a person: the times we’re at our lowest and loneliest, when we most need human connection, are also the times when people don’t know what to say to us.

I’m a writer and illustrator, and in 2013, I launched my greeting card and gift company. Because I’d been on the receiving end of a lot of “get well” cards, I understood there was a lot of room for improvement. (After all, a “get well” message is sort of awkward if you might not, and a picture of a flower doesn’t help if you’re struggling with what to write on the inside.) And, because of my illness, I also understood how lonely cancer can feel, and how difficult it can be for friends and family to find the right words.

Photo credit: Lehua Noelle

With Empathy™ Cards, I wanted to make cards that would help people who were sick feel seen, supported, understood, and loved. And, at the same time, I wanted to help give struggling friends and family a tool to make it easier to connect.

These cards have really resonated with folks, and I love hearing stories about how they’re used. I’d never say that cancer is a gift — if it is, it’s from someone who really doesn’t like you — but I do think that cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers end up with a different, and valuable, perspective on the experience of being human. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to use my own perspective — and my personal strengths and skills as a writer and illustrator — to make a small difference.

Cancer Moonshot℠

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