Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Cancer 'How-to'

Having cancer teaches you a lot about people interaction with individuals both with and without cancer. I didn't realize how relatively ignorant I was about cancer and well, about people in general, prior to my diagnosis.

Now, others may be able to relate to this but in no way am I trying to speak for everyone who has cancer. Everyone deals with it differently and so, to be clear, these are my personal accounts of my individual interactions.

Firstly, I want you to know that it's never too late to tell someone who has cancer that you are thinking of them. I just had a friend message me on facebook last week, over 3 months past my date of diagnosis, to tell me she was constantly thinking about me and was proud of me. Not once did I think, 'Gee, why has it taken her so long to say anything?" and instead thought "Well, that was nice, thanks." I am somewhat surprised by some friends who I have not heard from. People who I considered relevant in my life have not even sent me a "How are you?" text. Maybe some people are scared or don't know what to say. That's why I'm writing this; say something, anything, just acknowledge that I'm sick. I've also heard some people say (I was one of these people 6 months ago), "I didn't know what to say so I didn't bring it up" or "I didn't want to remind her of it so I didn't ask." You know what? I don't have the luxury to forget that I have cancer. When in doubt, ask how I am doing. Just knowing that someone is thinking about me or cares how I am doing, gets me through the day sometimes.

Don't feel guilty about talking about yourself. If you've had a bad day, week, or month (depending on the last time we've spoken), share it with me. I have had friends explain a situation in their lives and then follow it up with "not that it compares to what you're dealing with." I'm fully aware that something like losing your keys for a few hours has nothing on cancer but it's still a pain in the ass and I'm sorry you've had to deal with it. Just because I'm sick doesn't mean you're not allowed to have a bad day. Trust me, I talk about cancer a lot, it's kind of a nice break to hear where you ended up finding your keys. On the other hand, I have found myself getting a little annoyed when losing your keys turns out to be the worst thing that has happened to you in the past 3 months...

I feel like I have dealt with this whole garbage cancer 'thing' quite well, if I do say so myself. For some reason, it somewhat aggravates me when someone says, "Well, just stay positive." I want to fire back with "I am!!" because they make it sound so easy. I realize that many times, people just don't know what to say, and no one knows that four other people who I have talked to today have ended the conversation with "Just stay positive." But staying positive while you learn you have cancer, need a part of your womanhood cut off, have to go through 6 chemo treatments, potentially become infertile because of those 6 chemo treatments and worry about cancer coming back in a different form for the rest of your life isn't the easiest thing I've ever done so forgive me if I just nod and smile next time someone tells me to stay positive. I'm currently reading a book called I Am Not My Breast Cancer. A woman who has gone through chemo writes, 'I got tired of people telling me how important it was to be positive. I had to bite my tongue not to say 'You come over and stick your head in my toilet and I'll go over to you house and be positive.''' Once I read that, I stopped feeling guilty and realized that I wasn't the only one who felt that way. It falls under the same category as when someone tells me "Well, it's just hair." Oh yeah? So, you're going to shave your head with me then?

Something else I didn't know was that when your hair falls out due to chemo, it hurts. You know that feeling when you wear a hat all day, or wear your hair up for a long time or when you wake up in the morning and try to brush your hair and it's all folded/slicked to one side and it hurts to move it? Well, when your hair falls out because of chemo, your hair constantly hurts and just touching your head can be painful. I have shockingly, had more than 3 people come up to me and rub my head (kind of a-la-noogie) telling me I look good with a shaved head. I appreciate the compliment, thank you, however don't touch my head, no matter how tempting. My sister-in-law compared it to touching a woman's pregnant belly that you don't know that well. I've never been pregnant but I can imagine that is pretty uncomfortable to have a stranger rub your belly (to my sister-in-law and to every pregnant woman I have done that to, I am sorry, I have learned my lesson).

As my final thought, I want to discuss cancer and dying. I am in disbelief over how many people have said something like "My aunt had cancer, she died three years ago." I am really sorry for your loss, my aunt died of cancer too and that scares the hell out of me. It's petrifying to know that what was growing in my body is the leading cause of death in Canada. I'm sure that I have gone up to someone with cancer and because I didn't know what to say, I tried to relate. However, when that means reminding someone who is fighting cancer that it was the reason for another's death, it just isn't supportive. I love hearing about stories of hope and strength, about determination and will. Those are stories of support and those are stories I can use during my fight. And again, my point is not to offend anyone, but my heart sinks and my eyes often swell every time someone tells me about another life taken by the same disease that is currently in my body.

I have adjusted and rewritten this blog a number of times in fears that I am coming across too negative or that I am offending someone. Knowing that I have so many people behind me means so much and I hope I haven't ranted or rambled and haven't upset or annoyed anyone with my personal observations. Please know that wasn't my intention. The last thing I want to do is bite the hand that feeds me; I don't want to chastise those who have been there from the beginning, I just want to express my reactions to experiences I've had on this journey thus far. I wanted somewhat of a 'how-to' when approaching that friend of yours who has just been diagnosed or running into someone from high school who is going through chemo. Cancer hits 1 in 3 people; 1 in 3. We are still so awkward about it and don't know how to approach the subject and yet so many of us are affected by it. I hope this helps with some of the awkwardness and uncertainty that cancer can bring. I appreciate having this forum to both express what I have learned and to be able to teach (and hopefully not preach) from my experiences.

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