by JO HILDER
In July 2003 at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with aggressive Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. The tumour in my chest was as big as a saucer by the time it was found, and six months of treatment followed. Lots of things began around that time – a military-like operation by friends and family to ensure we didn’t starve was one. I’m still grateful for the wonderful support we received at that time.
What also began was an avalanche of messages and good wishes. It seemed everybody had something helpful to say. Some of those things were very encouraging – others were not so much. I began to recognize there are some pretty generic things we say to a person with cancer, almost like there’s a list posted somewhere. The most common cancer clichés include –
1. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” We know adversity breeds resilience, however, what doesn’t kill us can still frighten us witless. A cancer diagnosis is accompanied by intense emotions and circumstances. Being told if you don’t die at least you’ll end up with more highly evolved character is not particularly comforting. Receiving a chemotherapy that will cure cancer is.
2. “My friend/cousin/uncle/neighbour had that, and they died.” A clear example of how the truth doesn’t always set us free.
3. “Just pray, and God will heal you.” Sometimes people pray and cancer goes away, and sometimes nobody prays and cancer goes away. If you’re the praying type, instead of the above tell them sincerely “I’ll pray for you”, then go away and do it.
4. “I would love to come and see you.” When people say they want to “see” a person with cancer, what they often mean is “I would like to come around and look at you. I’d like you to see my sad face and my ‘coffin eyes’.” Having cancer does not cancel dignity or a right to privacy.
5. “God/The Universe is trying to teach you something.” People are terrified of saying something trite and meaningless, so instead say something they hope reflects the depth of the situation. God and cancer both make people feel pretty intimidated, and thus frequently end up in the same sentence.
6. “I have a book for you. “ Please don’t give your book, especially if it’s about cancer curing food, juice or vitamins. Offer instead to bring anything they want they can’t get. That way, if they want to read about the Praise Jesus Diet or try some Guatemalan Beetle Juice, they’ll know exactly who to call.