Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer – Let’s Talk About The Battle

An excerpt from one draft of my book.

People describe cancer as a battle, and they say those who have cancer are its victims. But in my experience, it’s usually only people who haven’t had it that do. No one particularly likes being called a victim of anything. Popular cancer mythology includes words like war, bravery, courage and fight, and describes people as battlers and winners and losers. People think because I’m still around, I won my battle against cancer, but I didn’t. I never fought cancer. I’d have been punching way below my division.

Cancer isn’t so much a violent act as it is a violent arena. It’s a place you learn what and who you really are. Cancer opens you up and exposes your thoughts, your beliefs your fears and your values.  If there is a battle to be fought, it isn’t against the cancer. The real struggle is wrapping your head around the fact that getting rid of cancer means just lying there and taking whatever they want to do to you to get rid of it. You yourself want to rip out the disease, scrape at it with your fingernails or cast it out like some demon. But you know you’ll never get rid of it like that. The fight comes in releasing control of your body, and in allowing others to do unspeakable things to it while you willingly submit to them. The fight is against your own instinct for self-preservation as you consent to being pawed at, prayed over, picked into and poisoned, then evaluated, mutilated and irradiated. It’s in permitting alternating acts of kindness and violence to be perpetrated upon you in the attempt to eradicate the parasite you carry and the terror that you as its host inspire. If there is a conflict in having cancer, it’s between your cognition and your instinct, as you’re led, bound and gagged, to the brink of your tolerance, there to endure all manner of mental torture, physical indignity and pain, all the while praying cancer can be tricked into leaping off the precipice of extinction without taking you with it.

Bone Marrow Biopsy

Cancer isn’t a thing you fight against; a foe with a mind of it’s own. It’s more like a place with it’s own culture, geography and dialect. Cancer has politics, conspiracy theory, convention and philosophy. But while it certainly is surrounded by malevolence and mystique, cancer has absolutely no intelligence and certainly no free will of it’s own. It’s a situation, a destination, a place as haunting and repulsive and fascinating as any prison relic or concentration camp, but it isn’t out to get you; it doesn’t even care.

Personally, I can’t rise to endowing cancer with either enough smarts or inclination as to be able to mount anything as sophisticated as war.  Strategy connotes intelligence. Cancer isn’t and never will be my enemy; it hasn’t the brains or the moral fiber for it. Cancer, as diseases go, is at best cells behaving badly, and at worst, just plain old dumb. Cancer is like a man who feeds himself by cooking on little fires lit from bits of his own house, until finally he burns the whole thing down around him while he’s still inside it. Dumb, I tell you. If there’s anything you fight when it comes to cancer, it’s fear – your own fear, and other peoples, which might just possibly be much worse. Cancer embodies everyone’s deepest horrors about pain and sickness, about leaving and being left, about fairness and control and heaven and hell and death. And you brought that thing here, you did it, it was you!

Cancer brings out both the best and sometimes the worst in people. When I was sick, I was amazed at what people were prepared to do for my husband, our children, and I. Our friends from church brought hot dinners every night for three months solid. People who hardly even knew me from around our town – customers from my shop, neighbors, our children’s friend’s parents and their classmates at school – sent me beautiful cards and thoughtful notes and sweet little gifts. I was surprised at how much people worried about and cared for us. But it wasn’t all sweet and lovely. There were things people did that I found confronting and even downright confusing. People made demands and took liberties I believe they would never have done under normal circumstances, and some were openly unkind and even critical. One person, someone I considered to be a friend, was even quite sarcastic, skeptical, like I was making a big deal out of having cancer. It took us a while to appreciate that everyone, even the people who were acting weird, really did care. And that the people who were kind and the people who acted weird all cared about the same amount, but they were also all scared about the same amount, and people do peculiar things when they’re scared. I think that the times when people didn’t try to hide their fear and just let it bust out all over us were always preferable to the times we were subjected to what some people did trying to cover up their abject horror.

When you have cancer, sometimes people simply can’t stop talking because they don’t want to leave any space to hear the frightening things you might have to say. Sometimes they say something to you they learned or heard or read, or they might stammer or talk really loud and slow and nod a lot like you might do inadvertently when speaking to someone who doesn’t understand English. Other times people just sit with their hand clasped over their mouth, and you realise they’re probably trying really hard not to scream and run from the room. Sometimes, you wonder who is actually doing the comforting, and wonder whether you feel up to it.

Sometimes it’s not even about what’s said. Sometimes, it’s what isn’t. Sometimes, in the exact moment when someone thinks they need to say something, that’s probably when nothing should be said; nothing about cancer, nothing about anything at all. Sometimes, it’s not about saying something; it’s about doing something. And sometimes it’s not even about doing something, its just about being there. Not saying, not doing, just being. Being a friend, being someone who cares, being available, or even perhaps being somewhere else entirely. Being is better than doing, which is sometimes a lot better than saying. You don’t need to know what to say. Trust me, you need a lot more to know what not to say.

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