Does cancer make you uncomfortable? Of course it does!
Disfiguring surgery. Treatments that make patients bald, pale and weak. Teeth falling out or turning brown. Missing fingernails. A large elastic bandage worn on the arm forever. Chronic pain. And on top of all that—for way too many—a death sentence.
Hey, what’s not to like?
It’s human nature to try to put aside what makes us uncomfortable. One way to do that is to assign blame.
Won’t happen to me because I did not perform in smoky nightclubs.
Won’t happen to me because I have a four-leaf clover.
Or—worse—won’t happen to me because I am [stage whisper] a good person, unlike him.
People may not even be aware they are having such thoughts, but behavior provides a clue. Cancer patients usually let it go without comment. But their radar is finely tuned, and they feel the rejection.
Twenty years ago Washington Monthly journalist Paul Glastris wrote an essay, The Case for Denial; What the Handicapped Movement Can Learn From a Totally Normal Guy, about the pitfalls of having one arm. He lost the other one at the age of 14 when he touched a live electric wire.
At first he resented the stares, but then in college he took a science class and began to understand that people could not help themselves. Long before Glastris was born, natural selection reinforced the scrutiny of outsiders. If an approaching figure looks different from you, he may be an enemy.
Good for Glastris that he was able to move past his irritation. But he had an advantage: He was young and thriving. Those adjectives do not apply to most cancer survivors.
To anyone who has a friend with cancer, this could be your friend speaking to you:
I did not apply for cancer. I did not major in cancer. I did not come to a fork in the road and choose cancer.
I never wanted it. I still don’t want it. Cancer appalls and terrifies me as much as it does you.
I’m fighting it. My doctors and nurses are fighting it. My family suffers with me. We all hate cancer. We are all living our worst nightmare. We would love to put cancer aside, to find a quick, easy fix. To escape.
Some days I wake up and just cry. Some days I literally don’t know how to proceed—as though I’ve forgotten how to get out of bed, walk forward, open the blinds, say good morning to my family.
Some days I feel like writing a final love letter and buying a one-way ticket to the Netherlands.
I am sorry I can not help you create a ‘positive feedback loop.’
Every now and then I feel selfless and cheerful, and then I make it easy for you to be kind. Please understand that most days I just can’t manage it.
I don’t want to scare you. But I know I do.
And because I’m frightened myself, and exhausted to boot, I don’t have the strength to help you overcome your own natural aversion to this blight on humanity.
So, to hijack JFK’s memorable quote:
Ask not what your friend can do to make you more comfortable with the idea and the reality of cancer. Ask what you can do to alleviate—if only temporarily—the crushing burden your friend carries every day.