I was walking down the hallway of one of my schools the other day, and I passed several groups of students on their way to PE, or lunch, or recess, or whatever. As I passed them, one of the adults with their group stepped away from her group, grabbed me in a fierce hug, and whispered in my ear.
"I was just diagnosed with breast cancer."
I stifled my initial response and hugged her back just as fiercely, before my tactile defensiveness had a chance to notice. I understood the whispering. When you first hear the diagnosis, you don't even want to say the words aloud. It's like those old horror tales about saying the words "Bloody Mary" in front of a mirror; if you say the word "cancer" out loud too many times, it becomes reality. If you keep it to yourself, then maybe that next visit to the doctor will end differently.
We spoke quietly a moment more. She walked down the hall to be with her class, and I walked the other way, still a little shocked at myself.
My first response was to say "Welcome to the club."
Not in a sarcastic way, which is my usual response to most things. I had to think about why my gut response was to issue a welcome. Cancer isn't something I would wish for anyone to have. Cancer is a horrible disease that shows up and completely wrecks everything you've ever worked for. It derails careers and eats up retirements and separates families. It isolates you from the people you love, and it beats you into submission. If an organism can be thought of as evil, cancer certainly would be considered evil.
So why would I want to say "Welcome"?
Because now we have something in common. That woman would have never even thought to approach me; we'd only nodded at each other in the hallways prior to that day. At that moment, however, I was the only person who would understand what she was going through, and she instinctively knew that. We are united by a common enemy now. We are fighting the same battle, and that makes us different.
It's a difference that everyone who has been through cancer knows, just like soldiers returning from battle are united by their experience. When I enter a place wearing my little purple hat over my bald head, a silent communication occurs between me and anyone else in that room who has ever been diagnosed. We don't necessarily trade recipes, but we make eye contact. Sometimes we share a nod and a smile, and occasionally we talk to each other. We don't need a secret handshake.
We're all members of the Cancer Club.