Messages abound of What Not To Do. Don’t admit you want to get married (at Princeton), or that you want to stay home with sticky children, or that you almost never shop at Whole Foods. And don’t eat baby carrots. Ever. But certainly don’t say that to someone with Cancer. Maybe these messages are true, and mean well, smooth over cocktail conversations, lasso you to the tony social circle, and prevent tumors. But, to me, they all sound like this: “listen up, dummy.” Three people sent this to me yesterday. It’s genius, and a diagram… so, obviously, I love it. But like so many of the messages of the day, it’s also a bit of a finger-wagging admonishment of Things Not To Do.

Superfamous blogging/tweeting Lisa Bonchek Adams compiled a list of crap things uttered to the cancerous, and she recently reprised the list now that news of her own metastatic disease inspired even more awkward responses. The list is horrifying. The list is unbelievable. The list is… hilarious. The Cancer Girl in me reads these smugly: oh, yes… you wouldn’t believe what someone once said to me. What an idiot/bitch/zealot. But even though I heard some doozies, they never (ever) made me angry… certainly they didn’t make anything worse. I already had Cancer. In fact, the really awful, thoughtless comments were fun to share with my girlfriends later with giggly, text-y glee.

“Oh. My. God. It says, ‘Well, make the best of it!!’ Yup. Exclamation points and all. Obviously I’m approaching this all wrong. I don’t need wigs and Ativan… just fezzes and kazoos.”

But this is difficult stuff: we’d all like to deliver the perfect response to shitty news, and yet in the moment ridiculous things fly out of our mouths and keyboards. After Lisa’s husband (an old high school crony) shared her website with me–and only weeks later the news that her Cancer was back–I was praying for her. And after reading a heart-wrenching tweet in the wee hours, I wrote something to the effect of oodles of us on our knees on her behalf. Little did I know those sentiments were about as useful to her as barrettes during chemo. Had I read earlier posts from Lisa, I would have learned that she finds the Churchy Jesus Girl approach sort of annoying. Ooops. A few tweets later she sort of asked for well-wishers (like me) to keep all the goofy praying crap under wraps. It wasn’t helping her.

See? Even The Girl With Cancer can say The Wrong Thing. It’s so easy to do. And though we can poke fun at an acquaintance’s blunder, or ignore the tweeted prayer of a Bible-thumping stranger, when The Wrong Thing flies out of the mouth of someone closer, we’re troubled enough to issue reprimanding blog posts. I had my own when I first entered Cancerland. But on the anniversary of my mastectomies, which has been my most difficult day in the Era of New Hair, the only words that I remembered were the good ones.

Most thoughtful friends and supporters of the cancerous can avoid the stupid remarks (more easily than I can), but often wonder, “What is the right thing to say?” Whenever I am asked that, I think of Drew. The night before my surgery he sent this:

“We will love you most on January 17th… until January 18th when we will love you more.”

Sifting through the cards and emails and messages from those scary days, I compiled my own catalog chronicling a chorus of kindnesses. And if you have the grave misfortune of knowing me on Facebook (I’m a frequent updater, a rather public guilty pleasure), you might have seen it there. Quite easily I could find scores of wonderfully “right” things to say. I thought it deserved its own page devoid of the smug finger wagging of the breastless. (Not that we don’t deserve our finger wagging.) Ten Awesomely Wonderful Things to Say to Someone With Cancer. I hope you’ll add to it.

The instinctive goodness of an eight year old...

Kids never get this stuff wrong…

8 responses

  1. I know this sounds like a little girl stamping her foot, but that little girl wants to yell ‘at least you CAN talk about it’. Hmm. Still, that’s the beauty of blog land. Thank you for making me think. May well do a ping back 🙂

      • I’m not American so I’m not exactly sure what the first means :$ And no, not the second, which would be a crass thing to say. I’m sorry, I didn’t explain well enough (how easy it is to unintentionally offend in text!).

        I just meant that some things are so very taboo – we don’t talk about them. And if you do, people avoid you because it’s too painful for them. Even though it didn’t happen to them. It happened to you. Well, me… and I think lots of other people. Maybe I should just write the blog post I had in mind rather than digging myself a deeper hole… o_O

      • Got it. And yes… write away! I really want to know the Good Things. Just yesterday my neighbor (and occasional reader) said this to me, “… has anyone told you lately that you’re wonderful?” Just walking his dog in the ‘hood and THAT was his greeting. People are good.

        On the other hand, lists of horrifically BAD comments to the cancer-ed are also totally fun.

  2. Pingback: Living Like This | multicolouredsmartypants

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