How Do You Talk To Someone Who Has Cancer?


Last week my wife and I went into hospital to get me inducted into the process of external beam radiation. I’ll spare you most of the detail. It largely involved a CT and MRI scan to ensure that the radiation only hits the affected areas and to minimize radiating healthy parts of my body.

radiation Auckland Star 1903

Radiation Treatment according to the Auckland Star in 1903

Anyway, as I walked to the bathroom (part of the process is having the same amount of fluid in my bladder every visit), a woman piped up that she had more hair than I did. Her punchline was that this was because she was wearing a wig. I was taken aback, thinking “how do I talk to someone who has cancer?”

Then of course I realized that I have cancer and people will be wondering  how to talk to me. Funny how you have these moments of lucidity!

I realized that I now have the right to share black humor with other cancer sufferers because we are all on the same boat, so I quipped back that losing my hair wouldn’t be a problem for me.

I think humor is a very important aspect of health. People survive many tough times by engaging their sense of humor as my friend the Joyologist Pat Armitstead will attest to.

So back to my new compatriot under the wig. When she was called for her appointment, they asked her if she was well. REALLY? She responded with “I wouldn’t be here if I was!”

As she went off to her appointment I pondered on this topic and was a little disappointed in myself. Clearly she was feeling stressed and I could have sat down with her, engaging with a bit more of a joke or a chat. I will do that in future if I have the opportunity, particularly after my first bombardment with radioactive isotopes. Having become a veteran of cancer treatment, I will feel more empowered.

So how do you talk to someone who has cancer? Just like you would talk to anyone else, just keep in mind that they have a lot on their minds and may be distracted, oversensitive, tired, confused and most likely a little stressed. Lighthearted would be a good place to start. Some of us will be open to conversations and some won’t. Respect that either way.

How should you not talk to someone about cancer? The other day I was in the office lunchroom and an “exspurt” (deliberate misspelling) was giving an oratory on cancer. I was disappointed because he’s a nice guy and he obviously didn’t know that I have cancer. Anyway this kind hearted expert proceeded to tell anyone within earshot that as soon as any kind of cancer gets you, it’s all over Rover. “It will kill you, maybe not today or tomorrow,  but they all die from it”, he expounded.

I quietly left the room thinking that in our business, we not infrequently complain that every man and his dog are traffic engineering experts, telling us how to do our job. So if you have an opinion like that, I’d appreciate not hearing it. You never know who you are standing next to and what they are dealing with.

Footnote: This is my third blog about my cancer journey and I had some trepidation about sharing my adventure. It is helping me work through some of my thoughts, but more importantly:

6 people have now come to me and told me that they are going to get tested, motivated by my story and that’s really exciting. If I can help one person, who like me, is in an early treatable stage of cancer, that otherwise wouldn’t have known about it, what a wonderful thing that would be.

I really have appreciated the support from friends, family, colleagues and total strangers, some who have shared intimate experiences and all with kind thoughtfulness.

Don’t be afraid to talk to me or ask me questions, or simply leave a comment. Prostate or any cancer should not be a taboo subject.

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6 thoughts on “How Do You Talk To Someone Who Has Cancer?

  1. Pingback: Musicians with Cancer and Other Maladies is NOT about money or donations, or benefits, it’s about Friends reaching out for each other. | Luigicappel's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Talking About Cancer | Luigicappel's Weblog

  3. Hi again, Luigi,

    Great topic. It’s something that I struggled with a little as well. I found that I had to take the lead and let others know that it was okay to talk about it. But I did so in a casual, informal, and even humorous way. (Yes, you can find an element of humor in having cancer. You have to. It keeps you sane.) I also found that, if I didn’t feel like talking about it at that particular moment, I moved the conversation into a different direction, usually asking the person what was happening in their life.

    You may be interested in these “What to Say When Someone Has Cancer” guidelines on the American Cancer Society’s page:

    http://blogs.cancer.org/expertvoices/2011/09/20/what-to-say-when-someone-has-cancer/?_ga=1.248802311.1248335710.1447446854

    I have a link to it on my own blog at http://dansjourney.com

    All the best to you.

    Dan

    • Many thanks Dan, I have just subscribed to your blog, it will be interesting to read how things have gone for you and I totally agree with the humor. If they could laugh in the trenches and in the concentration camps, I can laugh on my hard bed as those little bastard tumors get nuked:)

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