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.

Canteen’s Bandanna Week


When I was 8, my best mate died of leukemia, also aged 8. It was hard to comprehend, he had been sick for a long time and his family were very religious and somehow managed to cope. Since then another good friend died aged 20, just when life was going really well for her. Her partner who was totally devoted to her was obviously devastated and spending time with them at home and in hospital during her chemo visits was very difficult. She kept up a very brave face, but it was obvious that she was struggling with fear, dissapointment, frustration, why me, nausea, hair loss, energy loss, anguish for her partner and her family, I could keep going, but you get the picture.

New Zealand is highly regarded when it comes to cancer. When my late grandmother came to New Zealand on holiday, she had a collostomy bag, she had one kidney and had spent a year in hospital with over 50 operations. New Zealand was one of the few countries her doctors were confident about her visiting because of the reputation of care here.

We pay taxes for health care and some of it goes to research, but there are many more services that are essential, and today I have a Canteen bandanna around my neck as a tiny contribution of recognition to some of the services that Canteen facilitates.

One of the most important ones in my book is support. There is noone better to help a young cancer sufferer than someone who has been through it and uderstands what they are experiencing and going through. Noone else can really empathise.

According to a statement on Infonews there are currently 12,500 young people up to the age of 24 living with cancer or a sibling and this grows by hundreds each year.

The $4 donation I gave seems pitiful, but if 4,000,000 of us do it, it might be a different story. There are other opportunities. There are a number of bandannas on Trade Me signed by celebrities. There was supposed to be one signed by Elle McPherson, but I couldn’t find out, so I’ve put a bid on one signed by Donald Trump.

Anyway, Canteen does an awesome job and I hope they raise loads of money for this important cause. Let’s make these young people’s lives mean something and give them a lending hand.

I’m also planning one or more songs about cancer, but you’ll have to keep an eye on my Songwriting blog in the coming weeks to learn more about that.