Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cancer Patient Etiquette: A Guide

I have wanted to write a post about cancer patient and family etiquette for some time now.  Quite frankly people just do not know how to respond to sickies.  I know I didn’t before I got cancer and even now I sometimes catch myself slipping into that nervous anxiety about where to look and what to say to other sick people and their families.  I guess we all just need to put ourselves in a position to understand.  The best way to do that is to speak up.  So I’m speaking up as a cancer patient and a person whose doom is imminent (I guess this is true of all people really. I’ve just always wanted to use the words imminent and doom in a sentence…).

If you are not a cancer patient and no one has recently foretold your demise, then I suggest you speak up by asking questions.  Honestly, please ask me!  It is so much better than uncomfortably avoiding real conversation or awkward silences.  I don’t usually mind and if I do mind, I will tell you.  So go ahead!  I have talked to so many other current and past cancer patients about this issue.  Being sick is isolating and part of the reason that this is true is because people are afraid to talk to you.  People don’t want to inadvertently hurt others.  While this is wonderfully kind and gives me hope for the human race, it is also counterproductive.  By trying to avoid hurting us in the first place, you just make us feel more alone.  This is no good.  Ask questions and get answers. 

Another issue is eye contact.  Aside from avoiding conversation topics, people tend to avoid looking at cancer patients.  I think this stems from our parents telling us how rude it is to stare at others.  Technically, it is rude.  However, I would rather you stare at me and ask me questions than try to interact with me as little as possible.  This time around things are better for me because my hair is not likely to fall out and I have very few outward signs of illness.  However, many cancer patients or other sickies tend to have very obvious signs that they are not healthy; be it baldness, scars, a mask, or missing limbs.  It is so sad when no one will look at you, talk to you, or touch you.  I beg of you, go ahead and stare.  At least it means I exist.  Again, if it bothers me, I will let you know.  Communication is a wonderful thing, my friends.  I am not afraid to use it. 

As an ESL instructor I’ve given more grammar lessons than I can count. That being said, even native English speakers need a grammar lesson every now and then.  Verb tenses can be confusing, but let us all remember that the simple past should only be used to describe or discuss actions that have already been completed.  So to quote the mighty words of Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet!”  Please don’t say things like, “It was a pleasure knowing you” or “I was so happy to have been your friend” or “You had so much ahead of you” or “You had so much promise.”   I mean really people.  I should hope that it is still a pleasure to know me and to be my friend.  Unless I did something to offend you and then that’s fine, though I would sincerely wish that you talk to me instead of terminating our friendship.  I also have faith that there are still things ahead of me and that I am still promising.  Sure I’m dying, but I am currently alive and hope to accomplish as much of a future as I can.  I will continue trying to live my life even if I only live five years or twenty. 

On the dying note (remember, dying not dead), I will and do make a great number of off-color death and cancer jokes.  I want you to know that it is okay to laugh.  I can’t do too much about this so I might as well laugh about it.  Besides, I’d rather die laughing than doing anything else (see what I did there?).  Again, it is okay to laugh.  We all cope with things differently and my method of coping is an insane amount of potentially politically incorrect jokes.  However, if it makes you uncomfortable, say something.  I understand.  I won’t necessarily stop, but I will tone it down around you.  You really don’t need to feel bad about it. If you choose to make a joke, I won’t be upset either.  Actually it makes me feel more comfortable knowing that you’re comfortable enough to joke about it too.  If you offend me, I will tell you.  Until then, keep laughing.  It’s better than the sad face.

Speaking of the sad face, let me explain to you exactly what that face is.  It is the face that people come up to you with that says, “I’m so sorry you’re dying and have cancer and I know I’m supposed to look very serious and sad when I talk to you so I’m trying extra hard to look sympathetic.”  PLEASE STOP!  I know that you care.  You do not have to try so hard to show me.  I appreciate it to no end, but it’s depressing (pun intended).  I know that you are sad.  Cancer sucks and dying really sucks.  I am aware.  You don’t need to be extra hard on yourself.  You can hug me all you want (seriously, I love hugs…), cry if you need to, be sad, and you can tell me you’re sorry but you do not have to try to look extra sad.  I will definitely believe that you are sorry regardless of whether you “look” sorry.  I believe in taking people at face value.  Perhaps that’s not the best choice of words to use here, but you know what I mean.

The last thing that really gets to me and to my family is the assumption that I and my family should bunker down and wallow in sadness.  We are certainly sad, but we have chosen to enjoy what time we have left together.  I am allowed to continue to live and so are they.  They do not have to nor should they be expected to drop everything that they love to do simply to sit at home and wait for me to die.  They are going to continue to go out with friends, enjoy parties, go to work, and generally just have a good time.  It would be so hard on me to think that they wouldn’t live their lives or be happy just because of me.  On that note, it would be difficult for me not to live my life just because my body decided to stage a civil war.  I am capable of doing things.  My doctor told me recently that I could and should get a job before I went crazy.  Many people with cancer do continue to work while receiving treatment.  Cancer doesn’t mean incapable.  It just means that some things can be a little tough.  I believe someone told me that the hard things in life are those most worth doing.  It seems to me that if cancer makes life hard, then life is worth doing.  Bam! logic!

So there you have it, a fool proof guide to treating cancer patients and their families like human beings.  Essentially what it breaks down to is ask questions, acknowledge our existence, expect us to live our lives and pay attention to your verb tenses.  I am a person and I will continue to live until I am not. 

*If anyone else has any good suggestions or pet peeves considering the treatment of those who currently qualify as unhealthy, please write them in the comment section below.   I appreciate any advice that could potentially help others.