Saturday, January 24, 2009
(The above is one of Cancer Vixen's cartoons. Did I mention I just adore her?)
I mentioned I went to the Mayor's State of the City Address on Thursday. My first public foray post-diagnosis. From this small, but extremely scientific survey, I can tell you there are five basic responses a person has to encountering someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, to wit:
1) Person assumes serious, even pained, facial expression, grabs "cancer person" by hand and winces in a barely audible voice, "I've heard about your situation/diagnosis/ illness" (you can pick euphemism; I'll just tell you--no one can utter the word "cancer"). "I'm soooooooooooooooooo sorry. Are you okay?" Then cocks his or her head to the side and continues peering at "cancer person" as if she is dying on the spot.
2) Person assumes stoic face, says "Hi. How are you?" to cancer person while glancing furtively at cancerous breast but refraining from in anyway outwardly acknowledging that they've "heard."
3) Person rushes over to cancer person, hugs, smiles, or just generally effuses and says "Oh my god, I read your blog. It's so great that you are keeping your sense of humor." Or "I heard. You look great and you seem to be handling this well" and frequently there's the "If there is anything at all I can do, please let me know."
4) Person rushes up to "cancer person" and immediately begins a barrage of things "cancer person" must know, people that must be contacted, information that must be gathered, doctors names, other "cancer people" that must be talked to, and 614 stories of people who have survived; this frequently includes graphic descriptions of things that cancer person may have to endure but is in no mood to contemplate at the moment.
5) Person sees "cancer person," and perhaps even makes eye contact, looks horrified, glances away and then runs away or quickly begins a conversation with the stranger next to him or her, while still glancing repeatedly in the direction of "cancer breast." (I will allow for my paranoia causing this feeling--but some people are just remarkably obvious in their inability to "deal.")
Guess which response is my favorite? That would be #3. I think that if you know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, and particularly breast cancer, there's a few things you should keep in mind. Early on, the person feels fine. I can't tell, physically, that I have a disease right now. Other than the yellow-green fading bruise from the biopsy, physically I feel fine. So why wouldn't I continue on with my normal life? The other thing is, I'm still the same person. Post-diagnosis I don't think a person is going to suddenly be a different person. I deal with things with humor, mostly dark humor. I will continue that as long as I can because I don't like the other options. So when you encounter a "cancer person" if you know this person at all-- treat her the same way you normally would! If she is an extremely private person, then probably you wait for her to bring it up or you discreetly say something. In my case, I showed up in a room full of a thousand people in a tight black t-shirt with a pink stiletto and the words "Pink Heals" on my chest. It's gonna be okay to say something to me. For those who may in the future be in categories 1, 2, 4 or 5 above, a few comments:
1) This response most frequently actually comes from men. I understand--men want to fix things and solve problems and this is not one that most men can fix (Dr. Good Karma can however!). But the response is awkward at best. Again, I still feel fine. And it makes me feel like I have to comfort YOU and assure YOU that everything will be alright. And hey, this is about ME!! ;-)
2) You're kidding when you look at my breast, right? Are you expecting to see something bursting Alien-like from my chest? We caught it early; there will be no bursting forth. And for me, I'd prefer "so I heard you've had some bad news lately' or something that at least opens the door for me to say "yes" or change the subject or do something other than think "wow, this Person is really uncomfortable right now; I wonder what I did?" Eventually I began to say "So I assume you heard?" Every once and awhile though I was wrong--the person hadn't heard! So I am paranoid! But, I can't tell you apart (those who've heard and therefore are uncomfortable and those who haven't heard but apparently are uncomfortable with me in general!) so speak up (just not wincing and crying when you do so).
4) Um, wow. I can't carry that kind of information in my head. And while I know you mean well, every woman's situation is different and I'm really, really squeamish so lots of the details need to be left out. I'll deal with it when I have to. It's better if you write something down or just say "I know of a good doctor/ someone who's recently been through this/ a great website" etc... followed by "would you like me to SEND you the information?" Much, much better. Because then "cancer person" (who has very little control over the disease she is recently battling) can at least maintain control over information and decisions. And the information is available when it's needed. I can't tell you how many post-it notes and scraps of paper I have stuck in my purse currently. I can barely keep track of the number of doctor's appointments, restrictions, instructions, tests, results, etc. that I currently have, let alone things I may encounter in a few months time. (And as for the survivor stories...right. The ones who don't survive don't seem to be telling their stories!)
And you response #5 people: Well, you clearly don't know me well. So let me just say, you can't catch cancer.
In general, I'd say this: I have cancer. Cancer doesn't have me. I'm still me. If people can keep that in mind, we'll all do just fine.