Everything Helps by Steve Mulligan

“Of course your back hurts,” my wife said. “That’s what you get for doing CrossFit.” For the first time in fifteen years, I was back at the gym on the regular—swinging kettlebells, doing burpees, jerking and contorting. I had just turned forty, and all this exercise seemed like a mild midlife crisis. When the doctor escorted me to the front of the ER waiting room, bypassing crying kids, broken bones and a couple flesh wounds, I realized it was a whole other kind of crisis.

Why was I getting the VIP treatment? A grapefruit-sized tumor in my back. How the fuck? Grapefruits have heft. How did I not feel that? No time to dwell. They operated immediately. “We don’t let the sun set on this kind of cancer.”

I learned some lessons at the end of this. Statistics say you’ll want to hear them.

Recovering, the nurses wondered why I was there. I was young. I seemed healthy.

People wanted to help, and I didn’t know what to tell them. I talked about TV instead. “Season two of Ted Lasso is out. I got cancer at the perfect time!” I would be funny in the face of tragedy. Attention would be bestowed—naturally—and I would receive it with humility and charm. My somber tone showed respect for my mom and grandmother, who both died from this disease. Me? I’m good.

By my fourth hospital stay, my ego was gone. So was my muscle mass. Blood clots had spread to my lungs—buckshot and gravel in my chest. I thought about dying. Not that I was suicidal, it just seemed preferable.

I threatened to call 911 when the night shift doctor wasn’t available. An ambulance would take me from the hospital to better care. The nurses would be so embarrassed! A masterstroke in hospital-patient power dynamics. The night doctor called just as I was plotting my exit. Surprise, he was available now.

I’m told this stunt isn’t uncommon. I was what nurses call “one of those patients.”

By now, we knew what to tell people who asked how to help. “No. Steve’s not eating much. Yes, we would still love a meal. No more baked ziti please.”

When you have a physical condition, people like to tell you about their physical conditions. This sounds like a complaint, but it’s a revelation. So many bodies besieged by ailments. Entropy of all kinds.

I thought illness made me special. (Still do. Look at me, writing about me.) But many suffer quietly. They receive little and expect little. The lesson? People are struggling. They just don’t tell you unless you’re struggling, too. If you’re carving through life like you’re on a jet ski, no one wants to tell you about their boat with broken oars.

There was a brief parade of therapists. The first had a bald head, soft voice, and good intentions. He helped me zero. The second, my wife’s, encouraged the airing of grievances. I didn’t love that, either. We enlisted a couples’ counselor when the cancer started to corrode our marriage. All that oral processing helped my wife some, but I work things out in my head or on paper—why I’m writing this.

The odds of getting cancer in your lifetime are about 40 percent. That’s awfully close to a coin flip. If you don’t get it, a loved one will—why you’re reading this.

They removed a stent through my dick hole one day. On purpose!

The surgeon advised her young protégé on the proper path to exit: “Mind the bladder. Careful with the colon. Remember, he’s not on pain killers.” Operation yank metal object from penis was complete. I’m still scandalized.

I shouldn’t be. Life with an illness is full of indignities, your bare ass in a hospital gown, stabbing at veins for IVs, constant blood pressure tests.

I don’t even know what the numbers mean.

Is 180 over 100 bad?

This is why the medical professionals take over.

Your body is not your own.

After four rounds of chemo, I was cancer-free.

“You must have a different perspective on life,” I was told. I wasn’t sure, are epiphanies mandatory for survivors?

The problem was I zoned out during chemo.

I watched so much TikTok the algorithm sent videos saying it’s time to take a break.

I wasn’t a husband, and I wasn’t a father.

Cancer is hard on the people that depend on you. Maybe I indulged in it. But it didn’t feel like an escape. It felt like surviving.

I did learn some lessons by the end, though. The biggest was about the ways people support the sick. Some things I received:

      • Uber Eats gift cards—way better than flowers.
      • Thoughts, prayers, calls, texts, “good vibes.” I didn’t care what you called them.
      • Video games for the boredom.
      • Noise-cancelling headphones for the hospital roommates. One wheezed. Another hit on nurses or argued with his girlfriend, depending on his company.
      • For the tired caretaker, Champagne. (For mine, at least.)

Some things are harder to replicate. My wife’s life-saving care, grandparents there at a moment’s notice.

Some things were clever:

      • A four-foot stuffed bear for my daughter. When she needed something to squeeze.
      • A broken guitar sent just so I could smash it. When I needed something to break.

Then there was the true concern from friends I hadn’t heard from in years. They sent gifts, well-wishes, tokens of concern. All these things mattered because, when support is collective, every gesture compounds. The benefits multiply, spread—like cancer, but its counter force.

I can offer two takeaways. To the sick, receive the support. It is a commendation on your life. You can even tell people what you want. (“Don’t send baked ziti. I want Uber Eats.”)

To the supporters, you don’t have to do the perfect thing. If someone is suffering and you aren’t sure what to do, don’t overthink it. Everything helps.

Steve Mulligan lives with his family on Alexandria Avenue in Alexandria, Virginia.