the remarkable thing about feathers and why my cancer experience wasn’t so interesting.


Within a month of being diagnosed with cancer, I realized I didn’t have time for bullshit.  I was experiencing a keen and urgent need to surround myself with only the people who mattered to me, uplifted me, or who weren’t afraid to talk about the hard stuff.  I was scared and freaked out, and I wanted to be encircled by authenticity more than I wanted fresh air.

As soon as the news got around to family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances, I found myself wading through an onslaught of emails, phone calls, notes and teary-eyed encounters by people who just weeks before didn’t seem compelled to ask about how I was “feeling” or “doing”. I was suddenly a cancer rock star; someone who people cared to know about because of what was apparently the most interesting thing in my life.

Total misconception: cancer makes the average person somehow remarkable and worth being around.

And the funny thing is that I fell for it, too. I still do from time to time. Cancer made me think that I deserved an urgency or specialness status that I didn’t/don’t. I thought that because of cancer and all of the crap that went with my experience of cancer, I shouldn’t have to deal with the normal everyday things that go with being a grown up (like dishes, making the bed, traffic, bitchy baristas, etc.). I thought I deserved to be treated…well, like a rock star.

I wrongly thought cancer made me somehow more interesting (it is why I started to blog, after all) and it raised the bar on what I thought people might be interested in hearing about my life. Cancer gave me something to talk about that made me unique in some way, and it brought many compliments my way. Cancer gave me the chance to be told on a nearly daily basis how “inspiring” I was (oh, how I detested that word after a while), and breast cancer entered me into a sisterhood of sorts. Cancer gave me an invisible superhero cape. And chemo was my kryptonite.

Funny thing about finding out you have something so terrible that body parts need to be removed and chemicals introduced to your bloodstream:  it becomes a fascinating piece of your story.

I balanced on the emotional seesaw of wanting every conversation to be related to cancer and wanting to avoid talking about anything related to cancer or cancer treatments. Especially when I was rocking a bald head and dealing with neuropathy in my fingers and feet, I would fluctuate between blurting out cancer talk to random strangers and lying to loved ones by saying I was feeling “great” or “wonderful”. Because logic does not always play a part of how one copes from cancer.

Now, well into my fourth year since diagnosis, I am all too aware that I need to find other ways to express my appealing, non-cancer related qualities. I also recognize how the further away I get from all of the details of dealing with cancer, the further I get away from identifying as a “survivor”. I am not just someone who dealt with cancer. That was just a small part of my story. And perhaps not the most remarkable thing…it just so happens to be the thing others find interesting.

And this all got me thinking…we all hide so many of the things in our lives that we may be absolutely out of this world on fire about or little bits of our magical fabulousness for fear of being uninteresting, unacknowledged, or altogether denied. I notice just how much people work at being “interesting” and fighting for a place in the playing field; at the bar, in the office meeting, over dinner, in social media, etc. We work at having the zingers so that we can have the spotlight or be acknowledged. And, really, it’s the people who aren’t in the spotlight who are oftentimes the ones with the most wisdom to share.

How a feather blew me away and reminded me of my personal freedoms.

Take, for instance, my pen pal who has been living for nearly 10 years at Monroe Corrections Center (since he was a teen). He writes me at least one letter a month, and sometimes it’s just a list of books he’s read, math problems he’s learned, or movies he has seen. He writes about what he thinks might have significance for me.

This week, I received an envelope from my friend with a tiny little feather tucked inside the letter. My friend has been holding on to this feather for years, because it’s a small reminder of freedom and of the outside world. He never told me about his feather until this letter, most likely thinking nobody in the world would be so interested in such a small and modest gift. He wrote:

I’ve had this feather 7 years. You might think that’s weird but 7 years ago when I found it I was happy to find it for in prison inmates don’t get to hold in their hand leafs, feathers. I guess the little things like that I miss.

This feather represents something really unique and valuable about my friend- that he can treasure and care for something seemingly insignificant, despite his circumstances. That he can still hold onto reminders of what the world is outside. And that he thinks about things like metaphor and meaning in a way that so many people neglect. I love this feather.

And we all have our feathers to offer the world. Little things we hold onto that are of value to us and that help us to get by or remind us of what makes us feel free. Or maybe it’s not an object, but an attitude, action, or truth. Whatever your feather is, I encourage you to share it with someone. You never know what you might get in return (and sometimes those feathers are just buried underneath piles and piles of bullshit).

11 thoughts on “the remarkable thing about feathers and why my cancer experience wasn’t so interesting.

  1. Over the years life has had it’s many ups and downs…. Our friendship was on odd one at best. being your friend was something I strived for because you where one of the ‘cool’ people with a ‘whole’ family and I could call you my relative. When we were young I took you for granted knew you would always be my friend. but as family does it parts ways over the years and now we have reconnected and I hope building from where we left off. Thank you Wendi 🙂

    • Oh, Shannon- isn’t life so wacky and strange? I have such fond memories of my time with you and your mom. Growing up can be such an awkward time- and the physical distance between us made it hard to stay connected. I’m so glad that we’ve reconnected, even if it’s mostly over the interwebs (is that what we call it?). You’re a wonderfully kind person, and I’m grateful for you, girl!

  2. Beautiful post, Wendy. I have reflected for some time on the odd special status we accord cancer, but from the point of view of a clinician, a friend, an observer. Your thoughts here encourage me to always remember to look beyond the obvious labels people wear, whether CANCER or PRISONER – or NURSE or FRIEND. Sending love your way, Merlin

    • Thanks, Merlin- I always appreciate your wisdom and ways of wading through the external to get to what matters. I hate labels, but I also rely on them…it’s a tricky, tricky thing. Labels offer us community and a sense of self, but they also take us out of a place of being able to spread our unique wings. I will continue to call you friend, though. xo

  3. Perfect timing! I rather shockingly realized that the thing I talk most about certain people close to me is their heroic fight with illness and sometimes my own too. And now I need to work on finding other feathers to talk about them, because really they are so much more interesting. Thank you for writing this.

    • Paula- I do that same thing…even though I write about it doesn’t mean I’ll always remember this (or even believe it), but it’s good to consider what I think of as meaningful. I just love knowing the most important details about people that underly the obvious. Thanks for your words!

  4. I have to say here that your penpal in the corrections centre gave you more than a blog post. It is true that he learned the value of something precious (a metaphor for freedom…) through that little feather but he chose to give it to you…to pass on something that was precious to him and that is what makes we humans special. Our ability to care for someone else and give up something that we treasure when we think that someone else needs it more. That is where the true value of community and humanity resides. I hate bullshit. I come from a family of bullshitters who would rather eat their own feet than deal with anything. A communal pod of head-in-the-sanders who can’t face anything because it is all too hard. I am the black sheep and I know that honesty is brutal but I also know that it cuts deep and clean and that the wounds heal quickly and without ongoing infection. You were absolutely right to clear out the garage when you were diagnosed and your support team would have been all the more relevant to your recovery because of it.

    • Ha! Yes, Fran- I, too, have some “bullshitters” in my family. Don’t we all? I’ve been one of the biggest contributors, but in the past…say…8 years or so, I’ve tried my best to work toward being authentic. I also like to reserve the right to contradict myself. Because my opinions, beliefs, thoughts, hopes- they all change constantly. This business of being human is complex, indeed. 🙂

      • Damned true it is! I find my own ethos changing constantly…I often look back at my “straight ahead” attitude when I was a teen and cringe ;). Now I am a lateral girl…I think outside the box because that’s where penniless student hippies find everything that they need. Outside boxing…I think I just invented a new Olympic sport! 😉

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