Sep 11 2010

Cancer Chronicles: Don’t Tell Me How to Feel

I was reading another person’s blog entry where they were talking about their upcoming cancer treatment, and how daunting and time consuming the process of Not-Dying was, even though there wasn’t a better alternative.  Some — I hope well-meaning — ignorant buffoon left the following comment:

Be grateful. Your children will not have to visit your grave to bring you Mother’s Day flowers before they finish Gymnasium.”

And I couldn’t even finish reading the rest of the comments, I was so instantly mad.

Unless you yourself have HAD CANCER, don’t presume you have a clue of the maelstrom of internal emotions, often simultaneously conflicting, that someone in that state is going through.  Do not think that your clever and witty sops of advice aren’t something they haven’t thought of or heard (or both) before, usually from an exhaustive number of angles.  You do NOT have permission to attempt any passive-aggressive guilt trip around “but think of the children!” or any other admonishments.  If you are a big enough asshole to think that someone with cancer with children isn’t thinking of them nearly every waking minute, do yourself a favor and keep your mouth shut so that the whole world doesn’t know you’re a jerk.

And never, ever, tell me to be grateful about the choice between heavy-metal poisoning or death.  I might be glad to be alive, glad that medical technology is as advanced as it is, glad to have the opportunity for more life, but the means to that end are some of the most unpleasant activities a person can put themselves through and NOT die.  Cancer is ugly, and terrible, and affects concentric circles of lives each time it hits.  You do not get to disempower anyone going through it or near it from the fullness of their emotional experiences by deciding which emotions are allowed in your presence and which aren’t.

6 Responses to “Cancer Chronicles: Don’t Tell Me How to Feel”

  1. Andreaon 11 Sep 2010 at 10:21 am

    Dude. Really? *sigh* People don’t THINK. I would assume, much as you did here, that their conscious intentions were good. Unfortunately I think, too often, comments like this, are subconsciously geared toward “your grief/stress/fear is making me uncomfortable, stop it.” Livid-making for sure.

    (tangent note, I’m too tired to figure out where the commas go around “too often”. I’m not sure if how I did it means I think too often, or people make comments like this too often. Most likely they are both accurate.)

  2. Reesaon 11 Sep 2010 at 10:43 am

    @Andrea — I think you are probably right about the discomfort reaction.

    here is how I’d punctuate it if I were writing it:

    Unfortunately, I think, too often comments like this are subconsciously geared toward “your grief/stress/fear is making me uncomfortable, stop it.”

  3. Cheryl McLayon 11 Sep 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Whenever I have spoken or written to parents whose child has died, I am very careful to say that I have no idea what they are feeling. I can not possibly know how it feels for them. My whole response to their grief is focused on telling them that I am sorry for their loss and that I am available if they need me. If I have known the child for a while, I may share some remembrance of her/him, but I mostly remind them that their child was loved. I think those are the messages that people need to hear. Once, when one of my patients died, some asshole of a minister gave a “hell-fire and damnation” sermon at the funeral, for a 4 year old!! Talking about sin!! Just made me mad as hell for those parents!

    Yes, the important thing when faced with grief, etc. is to think before opening one’s mouth!!

  4. Mary Basson 11 Sep 2010 at 6:39 pm

    When my daughter was killed suddenly I got all kids of weird comments. I think some of them were because people just didn’t know what to say or how to react. I did cut them a lot of slack for the most part even though the one who is grieving shouldn’t have to “edit” or “forgive” at that point. One of the comments I couldn’t get past was when a woman and her husband came up to me after the graveside service, with their three kids in tow, and she said that she knew exactly how I felt. How could she? All her kids were standing there!!!

    Reesa, I have made comments about knowing “something” of how you feel in having a terrible thing happen to you, to your body, and to your life that has changed it and you forever because of all that has happened to me. And, I have said that I know “something” of the grief that you must have been feeling in having happen what has happened to you because of the grief I’ve felt in my diseases destroying my body and my life in so many ways. However, those “somethings” are only just that — “something” that is “like” not whatever is the real thing for you. I would never presume, and no one should, to know how you, yourself, feel, how you hurt physically and emotionally, how you grieve, how you cope, how you keep on keeping on — your own personal experiences. I have only said those “somethings” because there are similarities in the various types of pain, etc. And because I was communicating that I was and am “with you”. I have not had cancer. I have not walked in your shoes and may or may not. I am not capable of feeling whatever you have felt. I can only feel what I feel. This is not being written because I feel guilt of any kind; rather, it is written for a point of understand between you and I and even more it is a message for other people who don’t know what huge physical and emotional pain from such trauma is all about. I have had so many things said to me in the vein of no-way-they-could-ever-understand what I’ve gone through, in weird comments, in thoughtless words, in selfish ways, even in mean and sarcastic modes that I think if one hasn’t really LIVED such types of pain they should just relegate comments to saying they are sorry for what you’ve gone through and asking what they can do to help (and meaning it when they say this). I like the anger you used in expounding on how you felt of what you read because it is appropriate. Keep it up!!!!!!

  5. Reesaon 13 Sep 2010 at 7:37 am

    @Cheryl — That sounds like a very compassionate approach to delivering a death message. Wish more doctors had your insight and inclination.

    @Mary — Thanks for the clarification! To reassure, I had no one I knew in mind when I wrote the rant, my family and friends have been as a whole delightfully supportive throughout the cancer experience. And yes, I do believe that similarly intense personal crises of other sorts can allow one to empathize closely with that of cancer, but I also tend to believe that anyone who actually learned from going through such things wouldn’t be caught dead saying such a moronic statement.

    It’s rare that I get that polarized in my online forum but I enjoy it when I do!

  6. Allysonon 17 Sep 2010 at 10:07 am

    So it took me awhile to formulate my response to this. But here it is:

    People in my family get cancer. They just do. Sometime in my late teens, I just accepted the fact that I probably would, too. It has brought me a sense of peace to say “This is in my DNA, there is a lot of it, and while I take care of myself with dance and yoga and eating well, the genetic lottery says I am likely to have cancer at some point.”

    I watched a lot of family members get chemo. I watched a lot of them die - from chemo. Doctors flat-out told us that what ultimately killed my aunt was the chemo she was taking, not her cancer. I watched beloved relatives spend their last months or years completely miserable not from the cancer, but from the drugs.

    A year ago, I believed that I was probably going to die of cancer. I had told Jon “If I get cancer, I will let cancer take me.” Because cancer, fatal and painful as it is, would not have been as horrible for me as dying from chemotherapy.

    I had been raised in a family where you got cancer, then had surgery, then had chemo. You didn’t get surgery, recover from surgery, and consider your options, and survive. You just didn’t. You did every single thing the doctors told you to do, even if it killed you. It never occurred to me that you could get surgery, make your own damn decisions regarding further treatment, and survive.

    I’m never going to be glad you had cancer. But I’m always going to be grateful to have known someone who taught me that I have options other than what I witnessed growing up. That if I lose to the genetic lottery, I have options that don’t involve giving into the illness or poisoning myself.