Wednesday, March 30, 2005

What did you just say to me?

Knowing what to say when someone drops some stinkbomb of news on you is an art not many of us have mastered. We fumble around like pigs on rollerskates hoping not to be eating a lunch of our own feet, dressing on the side please. Of course, it can be darn near impossible to say just the right thing, so we rely on the popular fall-backs of "I'm sorry" and "I'm really sorry" and my personal favorite "Well fucking shit". Reactions to words are unpredictable, but being armed with some information in your bag of tricks can be more helpful than you know.

Even though I'm talking about my own personal experiences with cancer, and the people I encounter in the world who find out about it, I think this can be applied to all kinds of situations. Accidents, disease, a really bad hair day. Take it how you'd like.

If there's one piece of advice I can give to anyone who's on the outside looking in, acting in a supporting role to someone you know with cancer, being a good listener is the best gift you can give. My boyfriend is the best. He's sensitive and intelligent and incredible. But even he didn't know what to say when I was floating through last week scared beyond the ability to exist as little more than an automaton. And then when I had to make the call on Friday that the news wasn't very good, I was worried about how he'd feel, knowing that this man I love would be on the other end of the phone feeling helpless and stupid.

I told him, all you need to do is say "baby, I love you, and I'm here for whatever you need". "We'll get through this together". And that's exactly what I heard. Done and Done.

That's the best you can do. Let the person know that you're here to help and take their lead. Listen to their fears and keep your trap shut when the inclination to spew some well-intentioned cliché pops into your head. A person who's facing treatments, surgery, pain, life-altering permanent changes, asshole doctors, possible death, and everything else that comes with a serious illness has enough to worry about.

They don't need to be arguing with someone on the phone who's supposed to be giving support. They don't need to be comforting the person who doesn't have the hospital wrist-band hanging from their arm. And they don't need any more balls of shit to juggle.

There's a lot of good information out there to help you learn how to deal and how to approach a person who's faced with cancer. Do your homework. Don't be one of the bazillion ignorants out there who speak out of their asses. It's stressful for all involved, and the patient isn't the only one who goes through it, I realize this, but you know what? The patient is the main concern, not you, so it's just too fucking bad if they're gonna get a free pass for awhile.

Here's an example of just some of the retarded things I've heard since my diagnosis:

"Well, at least you'll lose some weight with the chemo, right?" Um, I don't get chemo and I have thyroid cancer. You know, that thing that runs your METABOLISM. The thing they're SHUTTING DOWN. Weight gain, you jackfuck, is in my future, but thanks for one of the most cold-hearted crap things anyone said to me.

"That doesn't sound so bad." Surgery and radiation? Oh yea, you're right. IT'S A FUCKING PICNIC.

"You're lucky." Golly, you're right, I feel lucky. Thanks for reminding me. Can you please hold this WHILE I PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE?

"You have the 'good' cancer." I do? If it's so good, why don't YOU take it.

"It's OK to be afraid but don't talk about it." Wow, thanks so much for calling. I'd just been thinking that I wanted to spend a good portion of my day arguing with something who's head is up their ass.

"I stopped talking to you because I didn't want to hear you complain." Oh yea, because being terrified that you're going to croak in your 30's and confiding to your best friend of 30+ years was SO stupid. What was I thinking? How dare I want to talk about things like not being able to brush my own hair for 2 months because I'm so weak I can barely walk. Look at me, the big BABY.

"You still don't feel well?" Um, no. I just had a major organ yanked out of my neck, an organ you DIE without and I can't take any medication until I'm more than half dead so they can give me a dose of radiation so powerful that I'm QUARANTINED in my own home for 10 days and I have a list of side-effects a long as my puffy little arm and I'm taking care of myself and will be trying to find the right dosage of medication that takes, on average, 2 years to get right. So, no, after only 3 months I'm STILL NOT FEELING SO HOT.

"If it were me, I'd just..." Oh please. Please don't ever say this one or you are more than deserving of a pole up your anus. I'm not you, you stupid fuckwad.

"This hasn't been easy for us either. Driving in this traffic is very stressful." That one was my mother. Thanks mom. Traffic really compares to surgery for cancer. You. Poor. Thing.

And the worst one of them all by a landslide:

"I promise, it's nothing."

Don't ever, ever, EVER tell someone that you promise them anything. You can't. Unless you're God, you can't. It's not a confidence booster. It's not something you can deliver. It's not fair.

I was told the same thing by my first doctors, and it wasn't nothing. It was something. A big fucking something. I was told that again last week. "I'm sure it'll be clean". Oh yea? Are you sure? Can you put that in writing? Are you willing to tattoo that on your forehead? I know it seems like a statement like that would be comforting, but it's not. Not to me anyway.

I give people a lot of slack and understanding, especially strangers and those who don't know me well. I get it. I know you feel helpless and it's scary to know someone who's sick. I know it. All I'm asking is that you take a minute to think before speaking. To ponder for a second who you're talking to and what their personality style is. I'm a soldier. I don't want to be told to "remain positive". Fuck you. Do you tell a soldier to stop and smell the roses? No. You tell them to be on guard, be prepared, and go in fighting. I'll do the positive thing when I'm good and ready.

Take the other person's lead. Listen. Offer your help in any way they need it. That's the best thing you can do. Don't cut them off. Don't be afraid to talk to them or send a little note telling them that you care and they're in your thoughts. That's a kind of medicine not available through modern science. Trust me on this.


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