I’ve written about what I call 'cancer etiquette' a few times now and although I have learned to expect that people will tell me about how many family members or friends that they know who have died from cancer, I just can't get used to some things that people say.
From the beginning, I have heard the expression ‘Everything happens for a reason' and I think I have figured out what I don’t like about this saying. It’s okay for me to say ‘Everything happens for a reason’ when I’m referring to my cancer but for someone else to say it to me who has never ‘been there’ has really started to upset me. I have to bite my tongue and not say, ‘Oh is that right, what reason do you have for me losing a breast? Or going through chemo? Or fearing recurrence for the rest of my life? What reason do you have for all of the mean games that cancer plays and all the psychological tricks that my cancer-mind plays on me?’ So my new rule is to try to avoid saying ‘Everything happens for a reason’ to anyone (regardless of their situation) and instead praise them for having that attitude if it comes out of their own mouth.
Another one that I have learned to hate (and I know people say it to try to be positive) is ‘Well at least [...insert chipper comment here...]). When I’m venting or telling someone how scared I was or how scared I am now, the last thing I want to hear is ‘Well at least it was breast cancer and not liver cancer’ or ‘Well at least you’ve had Keith by your side from the beginning’. Although these comments are 100% accurate, sometimes I don’t want to see the positive side of everything. I have said so many times that I am extremely lucky, and again I feel like it’s ok for me to think that way but sometimes I take offence when someone else says it to me.
The old ‘I know how you feel’ really gets me anymore too and I usually can’t keep my mouth shut about this one. I’ve been very open about my fear of infertility and every now and again someone who has never had cancer or has never gone through treatment will throw out the ‘I know how you feel’ comment. Their assumed 'relatability' stems anywhere from having a bad PAP in the past to having precancerous cells. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure chemo frying your ovaries and being given a 40% chance of being able to have children is a little different than, well, anything else.
Again with fertility - I was recently on a flight and the lady next to me was one of those 'I-need-to-know-everything-about-you' kinda people. So, it came out that I had cancer, that led to her telling me about her daughter's work in cancer pharmaceuticals and her focus on trying to target the cancer cells and sparing the other cell's from treatment's harsh attacks. She brought up fertility and I told her that was an issue I was dealing with. After I told her I had a 40% chance of being able to have children she said 'Well, you can always adopt.' Now, yes, I should have just said 'That's true' and then put my head phones on to avoid talking to her for the rest of the flight but instead I said 'Well, did you have to adopt?' (knowing full well that she had 2 of her own biological children) and she said 'No', and I replied 'No, because you had the choice.' I'm not trying to make it sound like adoption is a consolation but for me, it's not the same thing as bearing my child, and passing on my Dad's eyes, and my mom's beauty. I have been told 'You can adopt' a number of times in the past few months and I kind of feel like they think they are providing a solution for me that I wasn’t aware of. It's like they expect me to say 'Adoption, shit, why didn't I think of that?' Again, maybe this isn't logical, but it continually pisses me off when someone suggests it. And for the record, adoption is very difficult for many couples (who haven't had cancer) and I've been told that as soon as I tick the 'cancer' box on the medical history portion of the adoption form, they treat me as a 'high risk' client because they don't want to give a child to someone who may not be around to raise it.
I know no one is trying to upset me or be insensitive – they don’t know what to say and some of the above items may be totally acceptable to some survivors, but they are not to me.