Tag Archives: Lance Armstronging

10 Things Not To Say To Someone With Cancer

You’d think having breast cancer would give me some idea of how to react or what to say when I hear that someone I know has cancer, but it doesn’t seem to work like that.  I’m still sometimes just as mute and aghast as the next guy. But — at the risk of paralyzing you further when you are next faced with talking to someone with cancer — I can help with what not to say.  Here are some pointers:

1.  “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Please, make an effort. Use your imagination.  And above all, don’t be dismissive of the person’s legitimate right to feel totally freaked out.  Cancer is serious business. It’s Darth Vader, the Bogeyman and weird Haitian voodoo hexes all rolled into one.  Let’s respect the fear, but nurture the hope.  Try telling the person that you’re sending her prayers/energy/good mojo/whatever. Plagiarize — grab a quote from someone she’s inspired by (Winston Churchill’s “Keep buggering on” works for me.) Or, if you can pull it off, make her laugh, like my friend Ben did when he said: “I can’t believe it picked you… I feel sorry for the cancer.”

2. “My cousin had cancer and she never missed a day of work, even when she was having chemo.”  Well, la-tee-da! I hate her already. This is called Lance Armstronging.  We are not all going to win the Tour de France 150 times during our cancer treatment.  I do understand the intention to show by example what is possible; that a person can beat her cancer and it need not even slow her down, rah rah sis boom bah.  But go gently, brave cheerleader, if you’re going this route. Avoid Lance Armstronging.

3.  “You should try a macrobiotic diet/seeing my guru/eating all your meals while standing on your head/etc.”  There are many things outside of conventional medicine that can have amazing results.  If you want to suggest something that might involve a big change for a person with cancer, remember that she might be trying just about everything she can manage already.  You can inadvertently set her up to feel like she’s not really “fighting” if she doesn’t take your advice and meditate with a Shaman in Goa.  If you passionately believe in a certain remedy, try an open-ended approach: “If you’re not really into talking about this let me know, but I heard of something I wanted to share with you, and you can feel free to take it or leave it.” 

4.  “You have to beat this for your daughter/son/kids.”  Oh really? Because I wasn’t already lying awake at night in a cold sweat, just praying I’m going to see my child’s 10th birthday/bar mitzvah/wedding.  But thanks for pointing it out, and adding that extra layer of self-blame if my next test results aren’t so hot… I know that this sort of statement is intended to get the person to draw on her inner parental love-power and pull through for the sake of her kids, and yep, that ferocious love is a pretty potent force.  Nobody, sick or healthy, wants to imagine not being there as their children grow up. Sadly, you can do everything in your power to beat cancer and still not win – but is that because you didn’t love your kids enough?

5.  “I read a study that said __________.” Please see recent blog posts on the dangers of interpreting statistics and studies.  If you read something that is interesting or that you think is important, tread very carefully when bringing it up with someone who has cancer.  Even if you’re a doctor, your information – or misinformation – can have a huge psychological impact, and not always for the better.

6. “Think of cancer as a gift/lesson/opportunity.”  Let me ask you this, oh spewer of bunk, which kind of gift would you prefer: a bracelet/flowers/spa treatment… OR a disease that robs you of your health, job, hair, vitality, fertility and possibly your life?  Need some time to think it over?  Let me tell you what I would choose: not to have cancer ever again anymore for the rest of my life.  That is a gift. However… there was a woman I knew and admired and loved like a second mom, and she used to refer to her cancer as “a gift wrapped in barbed wire.” This acknowledged that the experience of cancer did bring many positive things (inner strength, deep connections with other people, perspective on life – whatever) but that it was painful and hurtful and excruciating to get to those things. So in Mary Sue’s honour, I will allow this: if you really, really insist on suggesting that cancer is a gift, please emphasize that its one that comes wrapped in barbed wire and rolled around in a lot of crap, resembling a giant, spiky and foul-smelling truffle. 

7. “Should you be having that glass of wine / cheeseburger / Marlboro Light / triple sundae with chocolate sauce / tequila body shot?”  (Gosh, that does sound like a good time, doesn’t it??) OK, we all know that there are things that aren’t good for us; things that studies show are linked to different cancers; things that we should avoid.  Personally, when I indulge in these sorts of things from time to time I do so because I want to feel normal.  Because they make me happy.  Because I’ve had a bad day, dammit. Whatever the reason, I probably already know I shouldn’t be indulging, and I probably don’t need you to call me on it.  My standard line is always, “You just worry about yourself, I’ve already got cancer.”

 8. “Stay positive, it’s all in the attitude.”  Before you say this, consider: Have you ever tried staying positive when all your hair falls out and you’re afraid of dying?  Actually, this statement is not necessarily a no-no, but it’s a really tough call, because while keeping a positive attitude is important, it’s not necessarily going to affect your longevity.  Apparently it’s authenticity that counts – feeling what you’re feeling when you feel it.  Nobody can be positive all the time, so why should someone with cancer be able to constantly maintain a chipper outlook?  Instead of telling someone her health depends on her positive attitude, just try doing what you can to make her life easier when she’s feeling like crap.

9. “We didn’t invite you because we thought you wouldn’t be up to it.”  Don’t. Ever. Do. This.  Always invite the person with cancer even if you know she’s bed-ridden.  Make sure she knows that there’s no pressure to attend, but that you wanted her to know she’s included anyway. Keep inviting her to everything you would if she weren’t sick – the block party, the girls’ lunch, the political rally, the tarts-and-vicars soirée – everything. Let it be her choice if she can make it or not. You’ll be making her feel that she’s still part of the world; still herself.  And besides, you never know when she might actually be up for one of these events.

 10. “So-and-so said that getting your kind of cancer at your age is the worst because it means your chances of survival are terrible, and I was like, Oh this is so upsetting, why are you telling me this??” Why indeed, would anyone ever tell anyone that? Why would someone then recount it to the person with said “terrible chances of survival?”  Yet someone really did say this to me once, without even realizing what she was saying. And I love her still, in spite of it. 

I guess I wanted to end with that one to make the point that you can’t really say the wrong thing if your heart is in the right place.  I mean, you can obviously (and quite spectacularly!) but it’s not the end of the world. And it shouldn’t be the end of a friendship.  Love is clumsy sometimes. There’s no perfect thing to say, because everyone is different, and everyone’s cancer is different.  Maybe the best approach is “I love you and I hate that you have to go through this, but I’m here for you.” 

And then don’t forget to actually be there.

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Lumpy, Grumpy, Slumpy …and OK

You know, it’s odd.  In spite of the happy clarification on the grim statistics, I find I’m still feeling a little shaky.

I’m not lying prostrate on the kitchen floor, but neither am I just reeling with feisty optimism, just oozing determination.  I’m kind of down, kind of growly at the cancer. I’m in a bit of a slump this week. I’m resenting the cancer cells and lumps in my body – they’re scaring me, chasing me, and I’m tired of it.  I want a break, which of course just isn’t possible.

And yet, somehow I feel that this is ok, this not feeling ok that I’m feeling.  It’s allowed.  I don’t have to be “up” all the time. Much as that would be nice for me and certainly make the people who love me feel more comfortable, it would be unrealistic.  Not to mention a little annoying.  It would lead to a place called Crazy, or Lance Armstrongville, and I’m no bike-riding, rubber-bracelet-hawking, cancer super-franchise.

At least not today. Today, I’m just a person who got hit with the cancer stick and isn’t too happy about it. And I think I have every right to be unhappy about it.  Living with cancer can take a lot out of a girl. Sometimes you howl at the moon, sometimes you come at the cancer guns-a-blazing, and sometimes you hit the kitchen floor, or crawl under the duvet.  Everything goes.  Right now, it’s just not going so great.  

And while I do truly appreciate the efforts of family and friends to cheer me up — especially  just by letting me know that I’m loved –  it’s also ok to let me be a little low.  You are even entitled to roll your eyes and flash your middle finger at the surly grouch currently inhabiting my person.  God knows I would.  Just a word to the wise: whatever you do, do not (not ever, but especially not today) start with that schtick about cancer being a gift or a lesson or a resolution of some dark long-buried trauma, or I’ll sock you one, I swear, and then we’ll both be on the floor.

Misery loves company, after all.

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Cancer Couch Potato

I feel an automatic, deeply empathetic kinship with you if you have cancer of any kind. But my cancer isn’t your cancer.  It’s not your aunt’s cancer, or your colleague’s, or Lance Armstrong’s (especially not his). My cancer is unique to me in grade, stage, oncogene and, most importantly, the way my body and mind are dealing with it.

It’s natural for people to want to tell inspiring stories about cancer. And while most of the time I like hearing about how someone’s friend beat her cancer in spite of how much graver it was than mine, I confess that I hate hearing the part about how she beat it AND went into work every single day and never let it slow her down.

Dear God. Who is this person and why does she have to make me look so bad? And why are there so many like her out there, going to work and getting the groceries done and paying the bills on schedule and making homemade gifts for the loot bags at their kids’ birthday party (which I find staggering that they even have the energy to attend let alone coordinate perfectly).

When someone tells me a cancer story in which the protagonist has done amazing things in the face of adversity, I know it’s meant to bolster my spirit.  And it is inspiring to hear these stories; the more insurmountable the surmounted obstacle, the safer I feel. But most of the time it does something I call being Lance Armstronged: I end up feeling kind of lame in comparison with this indomitable, energetic cancer superperson. I feel a bit like a cancer couch potato.

Then again… this is my cancer, and my life. And if in the whole surreal, bad-dream unreality of it all I find that I would rather spend my good days hanging out with friends than going to work or reupholstering the furniture or otherwise upholding the flimsy veneer of that old she-can-do-it-all superhuman persona – is that so wrong?  When I’m up to doing anything, there are a lot of things I would really like to be doing, and they’re not that demanding or impressive.  Lunch, a pedicure, a walk, a low-key dinner party, just hanging out… I believe that enjoying these things can help sustain me through the inevitable low times – whether of the physical or mental variety. This is not unique to me or my cancer, surely.

And while I don’t envy anyone in the position of trying to think of something comforting and inspiring to say to someone who has recently been hit with the cancer stick, I have to say it can be just slightly worse on the other side of the equation.  I see the earnestness of the well-intentioned person as they talk of someone’s amazing endurance or praise the triumph of someone’s indefatigable spirit, but all I can think is, If I would rather hide under the duvet with a book or talk on the phone for an hour, does that bump me off the Breast Cancer Poster Girl shortlist?

And worse – worse and darker by far – are the thoughts of, What if I should fail? What if I should try with all my might and never look down and rage, rage against the dying of the light in my own potato-esque way – but not beat it? What does that make me? Surely not a failure?

How can anyone “fail” against cancer? That’s absurd. But with all these tales of “success” and “triumph” buzzing around, you have to admit it sets up a pretty uncomfortable paradigm.

My solution is to not buy into it. When confronted with a Lance Armstronger I smile and say, Thank you, it is really nice to hear stories like that. And then I move on. Because the truth is that I’m happier if I am allowed to just be myself through this time.  I’m not converting to Zen Buddhism or going macrobiotic. And I don’t think that by doing the things that make me feel good and happy and whole I’m not “fighting” or persevering in the face of cancer as I would otherwise be if I were to go to work every day or lead a committee on climate change in my spare time. I feel instead that I am living my life well. I’m filling up the times that I feel well with the things that make me feel best, and those are the things make me want to live for a very, very long time.

Maybe that colleague loved her work so much that making it into the office even after a blast of chemo made her feel somehow renewed. Probably Lance Armstrong just really likes his bike rides. Me? Give me my friends and my family for a big Sunday brunch – and if I’m up to it, pass the Chablis. And after that, as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing quite like a nap on the couch to round out the perfect day of being an !@#%-kicking, cancer-fighting superhero.

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