(An excerpt from the prologue of Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer.)
One day in July 2003 I woke up, got myself dressed, left home for work and didn’t go home again at the end of the day. Instead, I went to hospital and stayed there. After several months of feeling unwell and being dismissed by my doctor as a hysterical, overworked middle-aged female, on this particular day I found out exactly what was wrong with me.
I had cancer.
In fact, I had a very big cancer. The tumour in my chest was the size of a saucer by the time it was found. My husband Ben took me to the emergency room at our local hospital where an x-ray revealed the huge mass behind my sternum. I was rushed to a bigger hospital in the next town, then flown to an even bigger hospital in the city where stage 3B Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was diagnosed. I started treatment immediately – three months of chemotherapy and two of radiotherapy – much of which I was obliged to have in a city four hundred kilometres away from my family and friends.
Besides those five months of treatment, several other things started the day I was diagnosed with cancer. A military-like operation, initiated by our church friends, designed to ensure Ben and our four children didn’t starve while I was in hospital was one. With me away having cancer treatment for an undetermined period of time, the amazing and beautiful folks from our congregation and community rallied around my family with meals, housework and all kinds of wonderful messages of love and support. I’ll always be very grateful for the help we received in those first difficult months.
Another thing that started when I found out I had cancer was an avalanche of messages and good wishes. Friends, relatives and people I hardly knew phoned and wrote, and sometimes even dropped by the hospital or our home to offer their support. It seemed everybody had something helpful they wanted to say. This was when it started to become interesting. Some of the things people wrote and said to me were wonderful and very encouraging. Some, however, were – well – not so much. I discovered there are specific things people like to say to a person who has cancer. I began to think there was a list posted somewhere, because different people were saying exactly the same phrases to me on a very regular basis.
“You know, I think God is trying to teach you something through this.”
“There’s a reason for everything that happens, you know.”
“Good girl – you need to stay positive!”
“You’ll be a better person when this is all over.”
“If you believe and have enough faith, you’ll be healed.”
At first I just said ‘thank you” or “I know”, but then I began to think more deeply about these remarks. I realized I’d said exactly the same things to people before, but now I had time to think about them, I realized they didn’t make much sense. Was God really trying to teach me something by giving me cancer? Was I definitely going to be stronger, or a better person afterwards? Did I really believe if I just prayed and had enough faith, the cancer would go away? Did anyone really believe any of the things they were saying?
I talked to other people who had cancer. Yes, since they were sick, they’d heard the same things too. And just like me before they’d had cancer they’d never given the things much thought. But since their diagnoses, some of the things people said to them about cancer had become an issue too, and even caused problems in their relationships. Why? Because once those particular things were said, nobody talked about how they really felt, or said what they really thought. In fact, the things people usually said to someone with cancer seemed to be like a very good way to quickly change the subject. Someone needed to explain how people with cancer did not want to hear the same old things any more, because sometimes we did not want to change the subject. Besides, some of the things being said were not true, and didn’t help as much as people seemed to hope.
I wrote a blog post about Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer. At the time I was still angry and frustrated, and pretty soon some other angry and frustrated people responded to what I’d written. In amongst all this griping and comparing of notes, every now and then someone would be brave enough to write and ask, “So, now I know what not to say – what do I say to someone who has cancer?” For a while, I didn’t listen – I was busy airing all my grievances about the Things Not To Say. But after a while I realized it wasn’t really good enough to just tell people what they shouldn’t say. The essential problem wasn’t being solved. I’d raised awareness of the Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer, but I hadn’t given people anything to say instead.
I needed to finish my message.
Besides, there are other things I experienced when I had cancer I wanted to talk about. The impact of cancer on my life was far greater than just the physical. My diagnosis of advanced lymphoma and six subsequent months of aggressive treatment changed my life even though the treatment was successful in curing me. Post-treatment, I found my priorities changed. My goals and dreams were re-examined, reorganized and reinvented. My relationships were tried and tested, and some didn’t weather the storm. My marriage broke down as I became wracked with anxieties and my husband slid into alcoholism. A couple of my closest friendships deteriorated for reasons I didn’t fully understand. Everyone tried their hardest, but sometimes we were simply unable to make the best of ourselves available when someone else needed it the most. It was only much later I was able to process exactly what happened. It seems cancer didn’t always make us all into better people, and when it was around not everything we did for one another was particularly heroic or praiseworthy.
With support, Ben and I were able to recover our marriage, and we’ve learned a lot about each other and ourselves from that time. The fragility and complex nature of relationships means that when something like cancer comes along they can be stretched and tested, and sometimes even broken. At the same time, their robustness, prolificacy and capacity to evolve means that those relationships are potential solutions to many of our problems as well. In other words, while relationships can pose some baffling questions they can also turn out to be the answers to our problems, never more so than when we are buffeted with trials such as cancer.
Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer was never just a snarky attempt to show how annoying some people can be when others are sick, or leave the pressing question about what they might say instead hanging in the air. My hope is we can find some new ways of thinking and talking about cancer, and in particular, new ways of talking to people who have it. This book is not merely a criticism, or an attack on people who want to help the person they care about who has cancer. It asks, “Considering the scope of problems cancer brings into our lives, can we find ways to communicate which mean our relationship is not one of them?” This to me is just as important as finding a physical cure for cancer. Will you join me?
Things Not To Say T Someone Who Has Cancer is available now as an e-book from Smashwords and Amazon for Kindle, and print versions can be ordered from Amazon (USA and International readers) and direct from the author (Australian readers.)