It never fails. Someone makes a statement or asks a question to either my wife or me about cancer. “Oh, my cousin had brain cancer. Yeah, he died last year…”, “My great-aunt had to do chemo. It made her so sick…”, “Does cancer run in your family?”, “How is your treatment going?” We ask each other later, “Do people just not think before they open their mouths?” Is it not enough that she battles the coup going on in her body, insurance companies, poisonous “medicine”, and her moral? By all means she has been a tireless soldier, handling not only the infantry duties, but successfully masterminding the command post in this war as well.
So the enemy is cancer, right? That’s what I thought for the first year or so of her fight. Then I actually started listening to what people were really saying to us. The combatants are not only the usual suspects, but also the sword of Small Talk who masquerades as Good Intentions.
This, I believe, is what a lot folks who are battling cancer, and their loved ones, have discovered. It is the innocent Small Talk that is nearly as devastating as the disease itself. Let me offer a few pointers to help you when you converse with a cancer patient or their loved ones without inflicting a wound.
1. Don’t tell us about your dead relatives. Especially don’t talk about how fast they deteriorated, the agony of their last days, or what the cancer did to their body. We have been to the oncologist’s office and we have seen our fair share of atrocities. Your tale can do nothing good.
2. We don’t need to be reminded about what effects radiation and chemo-therapy have on the body. That reminder comes everyday when she looks into the mirror, or remembers that in two days will she begin another round and will not sleep well or eat well and will be violently ill for its duration.
3. Do whatever you can to uplift and encourage that person, even if they look sicker than a dog. Let them know how beautiful they are, or how good a friend they are, right now and in the present tense, to you. If you are absolutely at a loss for words, it is perfectly OK to avoid talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room. He is a gnat compared to the darkly forged tongue.
4. Whatever you say, be aware that the person or persons to whom you are speaking are acutely aware of their own or their loved one’s mortality. Not a day goes by that they haven’t had the dreaded imagining of what life without them would be like.
I’m not trying to be rude, but I’m not above it. So don’t be surprised if, when wielding your tongue recklessly, that you are parried by an equally insensitive thrust or curiously avoided from then on. We have sufficient an enemy enough without being needlessly reminded of it.
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