21
May
10

Is Talking to a Person With Cancer Really That Hard?

I read an article the other day that was written by a woman who has been through breast cancer, and a recurrence of breast cancer.

The impression I came away with is that there is nothing you can say to a cancer patient that is going to go over well.

For heaven’s sake, don’t talk to them about how they look – if you think they’re looking poorly, don’t let on, because you’re likely to get “Well, of course, I have cancer, so I’m not going to be looking my best”; but if you complement them on how well they’re looking, they’re going to be upset, as if they think you don’t believe they have cancer “Well, thank you, but I feel like crap on the inside”.

Whatever you do, don’t mention either survivors or non-survivors – non-survivors remind them where they might be headed, and survivors remind them that they might not make it.

And who cares about what you’re feeling about them having cancer? Are you devastated to know your friend has cancer? Well, suck it up, because those cancer patients don’t have time to worry about you, there’s only room in there for what they’re feeling.

And don’t bother to send flowers or cards if all you want is acknowledgment of your kindness and generosity – cancer patients can’t make that kind of effort to say thank you for it.

Aargh!

Can you tell that this article rather set me off?

I’m sure that at least some of the author’s experiences warranted the kind of selfish, cruel responses she advocates, but were most people really being stupid as well as well-meaning? Probably not. I myself have run into a couple instances where someone deserved a cut, which I mostly avoided by responding kindly to their intended nastiness; but it was with people I didn’t know well, and at least one was a competing cancer patient who felt I was getting too much attention, and her not enough. I seriously doubt whether the people that this author writes about really were trying for glory by giving her flowers, or karma by telling her that they were so upset by her news that they were having trouble sleeping.

I have experienced the “Pity Eyes” the author refers to, but usually only from people who don’t know me well enough, or aren’t comfortable enough with mortality that they have no idea what to say to someone who’s just announced that they have cancer (for the xth time, even). There are times when those looks make me feel like the “Already Dead Julie”, but usually I handle them the same way that I handle the more confident people who express their shock/sadness/grief that I am back in the cancer saddle; with a smile and a thank you for the heartfelt wishes.

Because even those people who try to make me feel better by talking about how well I’m looking (and currently, other than being very bald and very tired, I *do* look pretty well), or who remark on how tired I look some days, have an unwritten text of “I hope you’re feeling well, and if there is anything I can do to help, just let me know.”

And the people that I have to comfort about me having cancer? They remind me how much I’m loved and cared about – anyone who is getting a hug from me is also giving me a hug.

How sad to live in a world where you perceive everyone in it for what they can get out of it – I know there are people like that in the world, but I guess I’ve made the choice not to surround myself with such people, but with people who are genuine and caring, even if they don’t always know what to say. No doubt the author definitely had some unpleasant experiences, some of which were brought on by jerks; but I suspect at least some of the bad experiences were driven by her own perceptions of what she thought they meant.

Being a cancer patient can be an all-consuming lifestyle, especially when you can’t just go driving somewhere whenever you want. But even if it is more of your life than you want it to be, you’re still human, and it doesn’t remove the basics of etiquette from your list of how to treat people. Is someone being a jerk? Feel free to let them know it. Is someone being awkward in expressing their feelings about you having cancer? Give them a break and take the behind-the-scenes message of “I care, but I don’t know how to act or what to say” to heart. Having cancer doesn’t give you the right to be less than human; or give you the privilege of taking your anger out on some poor unsuspecting sympathizer.

But if you are in it just for the glory, I’m sure there is someone out there who will be glad to let you have a ride on their cancer wagon ;-}

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