Day 8: How to Talk to Someone with Cancer
As hard as this year’s been for me, I know it hasn’t been easy for those who care about me either. While I appreciate everyone who has been there to support me, I have to admit something. You’ve all been part of a twisted and unorganized social experiment conducted by yours truly. You see, everyone has a different way of reacting to bad news and I’ve taken a guilty pleasure in observing how those closest to me have responded to my story. Did you feel uncomfortable? Worried? Did you think back to something terrible that happened to you? Did you try to make me feel better? Or did you make believe it wasn’t there? I don’t mean to sound so mad-scientist-like, but these observations kept me amused while I ignored my actual problems.
A couple people have “gotten it right,” but I’m still trying to pinpoint exactly what they did. They didn’t ignore the situation, but they also didn’t dwell on how sorry they were for me. They made jokes, but not the awkward, insensitive kind. They made jokes clearly designed to cheer me up. They were just there, with me, being themselves, and somehow it made me feel stronger and braver.
Well, having dealt with surgery, and countless doctors visits, and lots of “blah blah blah… cancer”, I thought that I was automatically transformed into one of those people.
I got a dose of my own douche-detecting medicine when I first moved to the Hope Lodge. Here, I’ve heard some truly heartbreaking tales – I mean people who are now planning their lives month-to-month because that’s all they reasonably have left. One of the 20-somethings has been dealing with her cancer for 8 years now and is hoping this round of treatment will finally put the bastard to bed. Another woman is getting radiation therapy to neutralize a cancer that developed as a result of radiation she received as an infant. You know, to fight her first cancer.
I’m not gonna lie, meeting these people was overwhelming for me. Looking at my peers with tougher cases than mine I couldn’t help but see myself in them and feel a silent and guilty gratitude that mine isn’t so bad. Hearing the older (I say older, I mean middle-aged and up) patients tell me about their unfavorable odds and seemingly endless bouts with cancer, I wanted to offer words of comfort, but everything I thought to say felt so pointless. I didn’t want to treat anyone differently, but there I was, feeling uncomfortable and being awkward. As a result, I treated them differently. Not one of my prouder moments.
I think it’s normal for us to react with some hesitation in such situations, or at least that’s how I’m going to rationalize my behavior to make me feel better. I’m happy to say I’ve gotten MUCH better now, and here are some things I’ve realized.
- Just be there. You’ll never have the “right” thing to say. Nothing you say will change their situation, but your presence can mean the world to someone. If you feel uncomfortable, do what I did. Just sit there, smile and listen as this person tries to share whatever they want to share with you. I guarantee you’ll start seeing past whatever made you uneasy.
- Treat them normally. As someone who’s undergone a good amount of shit this year, on some intellectual level I know I’m “different,” but I don’t feel different. I feel like Tom. Obviously, don’t go throwing Hail Mary passes to Quadriplegic Quintin. But remember, it’s okay if that person has to tell you they can’t do something. Don’t feel bad. Just say, “Ah, okay,” and move on. It’s not a big deal. Don’t make it one.
- Be yourself. If you’re a jokester, joke. If you get really excited about little things, keep getting really excited about little things. If you’re quiet, creepy and frequently sit in the corner to masturbe publicly, by all means, tug away. Don’t change who you are because you feel bad, or you’re scared you’re gonna hurt someone’s feelings. A lot of times just sharing yourself with someone else is all you need to do.
Six treatments down, twenty-nine to go!