Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cancer Etiquette Intervention

We are a nation that tries to be sensitive when discussing race and gender -- or even the disabled. We approach these subjects with restraint, choosing our words carefully for fear of insulting others. But when it comes to life-threatening diseases, that reserve seems to go right out the window! Since my diagnosis, a few so-called friends and random acquaintances have said some downright peculiar things to me. They range from the bizarrely sympathetic: "I couldn't bring myself to call you, but I cried like a baby when I found out you were sick," a friend told me. I actually felt bad for upsetting her. To the straight-up indifferent: "We're all going to die". Uh, yeah sure. Although slightly inappropriate, I recognize that such comments are really just people's way of showing they care. And while I appreciate the effort, it's clear that it's time for a cancer etiquette intervention.

THE DO's and DONT's:
  1. DON'T say I'm sorry. I know you mean well, but opt for something a bit more uplifting such as, "Let me buy you coffee (or a drink) for your bravery on the battlefield."
  2. DON'T send sappy or generic get-well cards. Is there anything more depressing than the Hallmark sympathy section? Ugh. A good sense of humor is crucial to conquering the cancer beast. Send messages filled with sarcasm and humor worthy of my valor.
  3. DON'T say it's only hair. I know it will grow back, but being bald with no eyebrows makes even the prettiest woman look like a Cabbage Patch Preemie. Refer to rule number 6 for more guidance here.
  4. DON'T talk to me about survival rates. If I had a cash payout every time someone told me they had a friend whose outlook wasn't so bright but went on to live for many years, I could cover my co-pays. People battling cancer want to focus on living, period.
  5. DON'T spout trite expressions like, "God won't give you anything you can't handle." Trust me, that's one I've figured out already. When overcome with the urge to utter said cliche, refer to rule number 10.
  6. DO tell me how good my GI Jane haircut looks. I'll play along. If at some point I have a bald head, tell me how nicely shaped it is.
  7. DO invite me to lunch and foot the bill. It's been a rough journey; sympathy lunches are always welcome (wink, wink).
  8. DO expect me to play the "cancer card." It's the only good thing to come out of all this. I reserve the right to use it whenever it gives me an advantage with a cop, a bill collector, a get the idea.
  9. DO throw parties in my honor but only invite people I really like and want to spend time with.
  10. DO tell me how fabulous I am. Going from sickly to simply fabulous is a lot of work. Feel free to compliment me regularly.
Everyone can be more sensitive by imagining for a moment that they're the patient. It's a good idea to ask yourself -- "what would I want someone to say to me?" Banish the following words from your vocabulary: terminal, incurable, hopeless and salvage. When you have cancer you learn who your real friends are because they are the ones who don't vanish into the woodwork and don't act like they've lost all their sense!

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