There are ways in which I will never make you as readers understand what it’s like to have cancer if you haven’t. However, part of the reason I write this blog is to try to explain some of the cancer patient “mentality” (if you’ll accept such a generalization) to those of you who haven’t had cancer. To that end, you can hopefully be better friends, partners, spouses, sons, and daughters. There are things I didn’t know before I had cancer that I wish I had understood.
It’s not that I am special. It’s not that I am so smart. It’s that I have been there. Hopefully sooner than you have. And so I am reporting back from the field. To try to help you. Prepare you. Because if there is one thing I know, one thing I know for sure: you will know someone. It might be your friend. Your parent. Your child. Or even yourself. Maybe you already know someone. But one thing is for sure: you will know someone who gets cancer. And you know what? You already know me.
One of the ways your life changes when you have had cancer is that you begin to understand the phrase “It’s never over” in a whole new way.
As soon as you hear the three words, “You have cancer” your life changes. From the time you hear those words everything is different. You now have a history of cancer — even if it’s a cancer that can be removed and you don’t need any other treatment. It is now a history that puts you at risk. Now every medical problem, every medical history you give, every question mark, every medical mystery must be filtered through the lens of a history of cancer.
A woman I know from college was writing a brief note to me by email to thank me for something nice I’d done. The last part said, “Hope you’re feeling on top of the world (or close to it).”
My reaction? First I burst out in laughter.
Ah, the naiveté of the healthy!
On top of the world! Ha!
Then it actually got me riled up.
How dare she think it was over.
Then I got angry at myself for lashing out.
I became contrite.
Why should she know better?
How could she know better?
It isn’t fair to expect people to know better.
Only once you know better can you do better.
If she only knew.
What was I going to do?
Write back and explain to her the error in her thinking?
Should I write back and say:
I counted every day, every hour, every minute, every second to be “done.” But when each thing was “done” there was always something else I was counting toward. Always something else looming. I’m never “done.” It’s never “done.” It’s never “over.”
The language we use reveals a lot.
When someone says,
“You must be on top of the world,”
“You should be”
“You ought to be”
“I expect you to be.”
For someone like me, if I don’t feel like that it’s hard.
I get angry. I want to say all of the reasons why that’s not realistic– why that’s wrong. Why that’s precisely what I’m not feeling.
But then, when my anger cools, I take that and turn it inward. And all I feel is disappointment. Disappointment in myself. Maybe I should feel like that. Maybe I really should feel on top of the world. The fact that I don’t means I’m not as far through this thing as I thought. It reminds me I’ve still got a lot of work to do.
Maybe the battle is not really with cancer. Maybe it’s with myself.
But I think the point remains: just surviving cancer isn’t necessarily enough. It’s not enough to make you feel on top of the world.
You can help those who have had cancer by not making the leap that just because they have lived through this round that they have “won”; don’t assume that they will necessarily be ecstatic, “done,” and ready to move on.
Rather than telling people what they “must” feel, we all can be better friends and listeners by asking questions rather than making statements.
Rather than saying “you must feel on top of the world” think of the difference it would have made if my friend had said, “Now that your treatment and surgeries are over, how do you feel?”
An open-ended question is always a safe conversation starter. I’m going to try it more often in my everyday life; I hope you will too. My wish is that it begins some good conversations between you and someone you care about.1
This is the 4th installment of a week-long sharing of some of my favorite blogposts over the past few years.
August 13, 2009 [↩]