*Know that before reading this, I am not a doctor, and I don’t work in the medical field. There is absolutely no proven evidence to back any of this up (though I’d love a crack at seeing if I’m right). These theories are mine alone. You may agree, you may disagree, and I may very well piss you off with my thoughts. You have been warned.
So I spoke to a friend I hadn’t talked to in ages today. He and I are in similar fields, and I had a business question for him.
And then out of nowhere, he asked this: “So I have a friend who has cancer. What should I say to let them know I support them?”
My first reaction was to totally build the person up, saying, “You’ve got this; kick its ass.” But these days, that can get you in trouble. In fact, it’s harder than ever to know what to say.
The most successful blog we’ve ever had in HuffPo was about what not to say to a cancer patient. They included things like, “At least,” “It’s God’s will,” “My uncle had cancer and didn’t make it…but I’m sure you’ll do okay, though.”
If you say any of these, stop it. Stop it now.
I heard these a lot when I went down my road, and it took every ounce of my strength to politely say, “Thank you for that.” I knew it came from a place of caring and compassion, which was the saving grace that kept me from going “December 21st” postal.
But the one thing that has really begun to gnaw at me is that when we are diagnosed with cancer, no one tells us many of the verbal pitfalls that are going to come…some of which are plainly evident, and others that are more subtle in their rage inducement.
An example of this is the word “war.” For those of you who are not entrenched in the cancer community either as a patient, caregiver, or loved one, you can’t imagine how many people don’t like using a military term for cancer. Some who have never seen a battlefield don’t feel comfortable with the terminology, thinking they don’t deserve to use that lingo.
Or, if they’re on the “peaceful” side of viewing adversity, cancer might be more of a journey of meaning, a path to the perspective on life that is now acutely in focus.
Of course, some hard-core war-linguists who do treat this like a battle look at the “My cancer is a journey” crowd as the greatest bunch of felines that ever stood in shoe leather.
Yes, felines means what you think it means.
Many do think of this as a war, a battle to be won. “I am gonna kick this thing’s ass!”
And then there is another group that I personally call The Road, and they tend not to like either of the previous two perspectives.
The Road looks at cancer for what it actually is: a disease. It’s not a battle, and it’s not a gift. It’s not personal, or human, or something to be embraced. It’s just cancer.
One of the reasons many in The Road dislike battle terms is because they view it as the ultimate slight if someone dies.
“Guess they just didn’t fight hard enough, did they?” can sometimes come off as the implication, whether the intent is there or not.
And seriously, what kind of sadomasochist really thinks cancer is a gift?
Well, I do. And I viewed it as a war. And I understand the feelings of The Road. To which each of the three facets might now be saying, “Pick a side.”
But that’s the beauty of a diagnosis, if there is one: whatever you choose is correct, particularly because many of us don’t choose how we feel. It just sort of happens, and I would venture to say that it can be based on a number of things…some inert, some due to the particular circumstances of their specific experience.
For instance, and this one of the few facts in this blog, there are many ways to look at the actual disease itself. There are those who simply look at it as part of them…some of my own cells had a meltdown and “poof.” And technically, it’s correct. We all have the potential to get cancer if our cells go rogue. Cancer is a part of us.
But then others look at cancer like a foreign invader…a la, “What the hell areyou doing here? And why are you trying to kill me? What did I ever do to you, you bastard?”
This latter one? That’s me. My cancer was absolutely a foreign invader to me. It made a deal with lefty so that he could sleep on the couch for a night or two, and then he kicked off his shoes and never left. And then he started eating my food. And he got fat and lazy and said, “I think I’m going to hang out for a while.”
And then he realized that he had a great time torturing me. “Let’s see what happens when I push on your spine sideways,” said the now rapidly growing tumor.
And with every stumble, every wince, every scream, it got bolder. “I wonder if I can kill you without you doing anything about it?” it said to me.
There’s a distinct possibility that I viewed my cancer this way because by the time I found it, it was the size of an NFL football. It was big and bad and a bully. It was trying to kill me and it was laughing at me the whole time it tried.
Now as you’re reading this, it must sound utterly irrational, and I could not agree with you more. It’s batshit. But that’s the thing about a cancer diagnosis and treatment: rationality goes out the window. Instinct kicks in. You look at it how you look at it because no one tells you how to look at it or why you look at it in a certain way, either rationally or askew.
Metaphoric show of hands: how many patients had their doctors or health team ask them, “How do you look at your cancer? How do you see it? How do you want to see it?”
Most of the pre-treatment comes in the form of blood tests and scans and ports inserted and chemo drugs picked and the possibility of radiation and a potential litany of surgeries. But as any cancer patient will tell you, the physical is maybe, maybe, half the battle.
It’s the emotional that will get you. You have a good idea if you’re going to lose your hair. You have no idea how you’re going to react to it. You know that you’ll probably throw up from nausea. You have no idea how scared you might feel when the nausea doesn’t go away after puking…a la that one (and only) time you ate the worm in the bottom of the tequila.
Oh don’t tell me you haven’t done it. Yes? No?
No one discusses this with us, and we’re left to figure it out on our own. We create what we need to create to make sense out of something that has just blindsided us.
But this has created a by-product that, honestly, I didn’t see coming. Sadly, some patients turn on each other because of differing viewpoints on how cancer should be addressed.
I can only speak for myself, because mine is the only life I can live, but in my eyes, and let me be abundantly clear on this, whether you’re a warrior, on a journey, or a realist on a road…you’re right. Period.
There is no road map to this. You absolutely have to do what is best for you to endure, and you need to trust your own instincts.
For me? Cancer was not a gift, but it was the single most transformative event of my life. It forced me to put things into perspective, and gave me a purpose that I never knew I would have.
And yes, I did look at is as a fight, a battle, a war, because my perception was that a very large tumor not only tried to kill me slowly physically, but did a bang-up freaking job on me emotionally as I begged my God to take away my pain by any means necessary.
And contrary to what the anti-war movement might think, I do not look at people who die from this disease as beaten by this disease. It took my friend Deb’s life, but because I love to tell her story, she is very, very much alive.
I know that my stance may not be correct for many of you, and I’m okay with that. I totally support your choice to disagree with me, as I may disagree with you. But each of us has the inalienable right to view cancer the way we need to view it.
We earned that right with those three words.