Useful Suggestions if You Know Someone with Cancer:
I do appreciate and am grateful for all the support I’ve been receiving. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many of the people who are not in my closest circle of friends (with mutual awareness of that, I might add) nonetheless actually do give a damn about me. I’ve been enjoying a level of warmth I didn’t know was there for me. I am thankful for it.
That being said, there are a few things bugging me, and they are of the kind that will probably irritate any fatally-ill people in your life, too. Here are a few things you might want to consider not doing.
- Please quit asking how I’m feeling today. It’s not a big deal when one or two people a day ask me, but when everyone does, it quickly becomes like having 27 people remind me I am sick and actively dying. I think linguist call it subtext. I appreciate their interest, but imagine if your neighbors said to you, as you walk to your car or take out your garbage, “Hey! Just in case you forgot, you’re dying!” Say just, “G’morning!” and leave it at that. Maybe chitchat about the weather or whatever. Once you’ve looked a cancer patient in the eye and quietly offered your help running errands or keeping him company, don’t bring it up or even hint at it. “I’m going to the grocery store. You want me pick something up for you?” conveys your care, whereas looking at me with concerned, sympathetic eyes and asking how I’m feeling makes me feel like a Dead Man Walking. After a few weeks of this, it gets creepy.
The same subtext concept applies to a daily “I’ve been praying for you!” It’s much stronger, though. Ya, like double, triple, even four-ple times stronger.
- Please remember that for about half of the chemo treatment cycle (about one week out of EVERY two) I am sick. It feels very much like having a flu (except without the runny nose.) Chances are I am sleeping, snoozing, napping, dozing, staring at the ceiling, or hazily thinking about the upcoming Big Event and the entirety of my life. Please do not try to entertain me or plan activities to cheer me up. If you want to keep me company, great! Just sit nearby and read a book or something. Follow my lead for the level and complexity of conversation. Probably all I’m up to is intermittent chitchat.
Two little incidents illustrate this:
- A neighbor who was nice enough – yes, I see that – to bring me homemade chicken soup but knocked on my door like a Nazi stormtrooper and made me jump out of my skin.
- Just before Thanksgiving, a lady friend of mine woke me (ya, in the middle of the day) just to give me a pumpkin. I DO appreciate her for thinking of me, but the gifted pumpkin wasn’t even in the proper form (pie)! I smashed the pumpkin down over her head like a helmet, spun her around to make her dizzy and disoriented, and pushed her in the general direction of highway traffic. Okay, okay, actually I smiled and said thank you, but the pumpkin-helmet plan did immediately flash through my mind.
- Please remember that during the other half of the chemo treatment cycle, on my good days preceding the next treatment and resultant week of near uselessness, I have things to do. Beside basic errands like getting groceries and doing laundry, I have new and necessary preparations to cross off my to-do list, and I have long-standing goals and projects that I’d like to advance because . . . because I’m still alive and it’s generally a good idea to keep on living until you die. There’s more to living than merely seeking distraction and entertainment. I have things to do and effectively only about half of each monthly calendar to do them. Thank you, but no, I do not want to go out for a couple of drinks.
- Please remember that I have lost nearly all of the illusion of controlling my life. Not only is cancer taking years from me but also chemotherapy is stealing as much as half of my time left. Yes, I know in truth the chemo is extending my overall time here, but up to half that time is useless for pretty much any activity and definitely useless for any productivity. Imagine a person who was somehow able, after a lifetime of attempts, finally to be able to herd a few rascally cats in the shadows and then one morning to find himself on the wrong end of a leash in the claw of a damn big and ugly beast. Please allow me to believe that I still know what’s best for me, that I still handle my own helm. Please do not make decisions for me. (These days I am remembering – from nearly 30 years ago – my mother talking about this.)
- I am not sure if I’m expressing this last thought as articulately as possible, or if it is the wisest, most emotionally healthy thinking, but here goes:
It is clear that the people closest to me and the most intertwined in my life have genuine concern and the best intentions. I do wonder, though, about some of the people in my outer orbits. I’m pretty sure I am not the kind of person who makes everything about himself, the kind who demands attention and to be the center of focus (usually I’m rather uncomfortable with that, even on my birthday or whatever). My cancer thing, though, uhh, ya, I’m thinking that yes, this IS about me. If we are not very close, it’s completely okay if you don’t want to participate, but if you do, I’m sorry, but helping you feel good about your somewhat clumsy efforts and helping you deal with the issue of death just can’t be my priority. I will continue to try to be polite, but with each nearly useless week after a chemo treatment, I am becoming increasingly aware that I just don’t have the energy or time to fully extend myself for the benefit of others. Whether I live a few more months or a few more years, as always life is not meant to be centered squarely on the self, but, uhh, ya, my cureless cancer IS about me.