Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Early on in the cancer process, I stopped telling people about my diagnosis face to face. I always wanted to let people know, sort of as background information, so that when I snarked about it or played the cancer card, they'd be in on the joke. But, it turns out that when you say, "I have cancer," people don't treat it like saying, "Oh, I have two dogs," (I do) or "My family is from Spain" (they aren't). Instead, the conversation grinds to a halt and then the person has this moment where they are very clearly trying to decide how to proceed. Then they, assume a very practiced caring expression and say something sympathetic (usually, "How do you feel?" to which I always wanted to respond, "Now? Awkward"). But I never wanted sympathetic. I just wanted to continue on with the conversation, only now having introduced a minor plot point. So, to avoid this awkwardness, I just started telling people over e-mail.

But the point of this post isn't that I no longer tell people about my diagnosis face to face. It's that cancer is this buzzword that signifies TERRIBLE! The word itself carries so much cache. People hear that and it's like you've said "I have the worst thing that can happen to anyone." Like there is nothing worse in the world than cancer. And that's not true. At all.

The fact of the matter is that all sorts of people deal with really terrible things all of the time. They just don't have a nice buzzword associated with them. I have friends who have two preschool aged children that were both diagnosed with a really awful degenerative disease. I have another friend who lost both parents while she was pregnant with her first child. Infertility, divorce, chronic pain, whatever it is, nearly everyone I know has dealt with some sort of catastrophic problem. And the people I know who aren't dealing with huge issues still live difficult stressful lives, with bad bosses and long commutes and cranky kids.

And the point of all of this is that yes, having cancer sucks. It's not like a magical pony ride to cotton candy land. But my life isn't any worse than anyone else's. Bad things happen to people all the time, and this just happens to be the lot I was dealt. And, in many ways, my life could be much, much worse than it is, and I'm really grateful that it isn't. I think Jay-Z put it pretty nicely. Is cancer one of my 99 problems? Yes, but a bitch isn't.

(Oh, and I do listen to things other than rap, but you'd never know it from reading this blog.)


  1. Thanks for this post. It is hard to know how to react when someone reveals an illness or something of the sort. I admit I'm a chickenshit about this sort of thing and don't know WTF to say, so this is helpful, seriously. I have a work friend (as in we don't hang out outside of work, but chat daily) that is in a wheelchair. All I know is that she had an "accident". I never had the balls to ask her "So, what happened to leave you in that anyway?" And I don't know why. I guess I always just assumed that if she wanted me to know the deets she would tell me, and I didn't want to be a dick for asking, you know?

    A serious question - how would you prefer that people react, instead of sympathetically? What would be a good response, in your opinion? This is a very educational moment for me - not being snarky for once, I swear! I've only had family members get sick, not acquaintances, and this would be good info to have.


  2. First off, I don't really know how to react in those situations, and I agree that if someone wants you to know the details, they will share them. I also think that it never hurts to ask as long as you are honestly wondering (i.e., there is no judgment).

    And, honestly, I don't think there is one way to react that would fit everyone. I think that there are probably lots of people who want the sympathetic reaction. I just really did want to be treated any differently than normal, while making as many inappropriate jokes about cancer as possible. That's hard to do when someone is looking at you all doe eyed.

  3. You're right, there ARE things worse than cancer. Like not getting to see Lady Gaga on her current tour. WHERE'S MY GODDAMN RIBBON?! *dramatic sigh*

    This is an excellent, post, though. I think too many people hearthe word 'cancer', freeze up in fear and then start to see the person's entirety as being that disease as opposed to it merely being one (although a super-crappy one) facet of their lives.

    What I'm trying to say is that you are awesome. :)

  4. I think that moment that you identify so well is kind of cool. "I have cancer" punches most people right in the empathy. It'd be cool if there were more things that could wake that up, but it's nice to know anything does.

  5. @Sarah - See, not getting Godga tickets is true tragedy. If you go, you have to let me know how it is. I bet she puts on an amazing show!

  6. I think unless you experience something first hand, you can empathize all you want, but you'll never truly understand. So if someone doesn't have cancer (like myself), you have this awkward moment where you want to let the person who has cancer (ie: you) that you are there for them, that you care whether they've lost their eye lashes or have thrush, but you don't want to sound like a big doofus or make them feel uncomfortable.

    If I had cancer, I would tell everyone through email just so that I could avoid that moment.

    On that depressing note, Happy New Year! I've decided to make no real resolutions as they just depress me when I don't follow through on them.

  7. I can relate to your comments about not wanting to talk to people (in person) about your cancer.

    It's just to much drama for me too ... I'd rather send an email or blog about it.

    If people find out through email ... it also gives them an opportunity to digest the info before they talk to you.