[cancer] The things people say

I’ve struggled a bit to write this particular post. It’s been on my mind for a while, but finding the right way to express my thoughts has not been easy.

There are things people say to me about my cancer that drive me nuts.

It’s not a matter of intention, I know that. And I have no desire to reject anyone’s goodwill or good wishes. I know there’s not much to be said or done about my cancer from the perspective of a sympathetic friend, acquaintance or Internet connection. Unless you’re on the ground in Portland and able to be part of the group of people that help me with errands, housework, cooking and chemo care, there’s not much to do except express goodwill and good wishes.

But when people tell me how brave I am, it irritates me.

Bravery is a choice. It is a thing you do when confronted by circumstances. You choose to step into the blade, fight the fire, pull the baby from the wrecked car, confront the bully, whatever it may be. In order to be brave, you have to have the freedom to walk away from the situation.

I don’t have that freedom, not with cancer. I have the choice to not accept treatment, but that isn’t much of a choice. I’m not brave, I’m doing what I have to do. For me, for my daughter, for my family and friends, for my books and readers, for my future. There’s nothing brave about the sorry, sordid business of cancer, chemotherapy and surgery. It’s just a thing I do.

Likewise when people tell me I’ll be fine, it irritates me.

Again, that is an expression of goodwill. But really, you don’t know that. I don’t know that. My doctors don’t know that. We know the statistical odds for my cancer cohort. We know my prognosis based on my particular health factors and metastasis patterns. But we don’t know that I’ll be fine. In fact, the odds are somewhere between even (my prognosis) and hard against (my cohort statistics) that I will not be fine, that I will be dead in the next few years. All I can do is go forward and hope.

I think both sentiments arise from a sense of helplessness combined with a frustrated desire to help and support. Cancer still has a special terror in our culture, beyond many other diseases just as serious. For the most part, with a few notable exceptions, it’s not a lifestyle disease. Cancer isn’t “earned”, nor is a punishment from some bitter Calvinist God for misbehavior. It’s an assassin in the dark, a random terror that can strike anyone at anytime regardless of circumstance or status or their place in the world.

Beyond that, I understand that people care and want to extend affection, support, even love. So I don’t grump at people when they say those things. I accept them in the spirit in which they are intended. But they still strike me oddly.

Curiously, despite my hard core atheism, I don’t have a similar reaction to people who want to pray for, or occasionally with, me. I respect what prayer means to those who pray, and take that exactly as intended.

It’s not that you shouldn’t say these things to me. Sentiments from the heart are sentiments from the heart. But if you really want to do something for me, donate some money to the American Cancer Society or the Clayton Memorial Medical Fund. Even better, donate some time at an infusion center, or doing errands and housework for a chemotherapy patient in your neighborhood or social circle.

Because really, there’s nothing anybody can do except watch me walk through the darkness, and occasionally hold my hand. I’m not brave, and nobody knows if I’ll be fine, but I keep going.

There is no way out but forward.

6 thoughts on “[cancer] The things people say

  1. Some people do “break down” and not do what they need to do to treat their cancer and take care of themselves while getting what treatment they do get, though. The fact that you’re managing to keep things together enough to do all those things you’re doing to improve your chances isn’t just automatic, isn’t what absolutely everybody does.

    So giving you credit for it isn’t completely unreasonable. Even if it seems to you like you really had no choice and no chance to do otherwise.

  2. Kyle David Jelle says:

    Nope. You do have choices. You could drown your sorrows in substance abuse, or take the real coward’s way out, suicide, but you haven’t. That shows bravery. You’ve also made a choice to be very open about your struggle and share deeply personal vulnerabilities with the world, and that shows bravery too.

    But you go right on denying it. Over and over we see people risk life and limb to do truly heroic things, and when asked about it later, they say, “I was just doing my job. It was nothing. Anybody would have done it.” Which is to say, brave people are just terrible at self-identification, and their modesty, however sincere, is simply not to be trusted. Your apparent belief that there’s nothing special about your conduct pays the rest of us a great compliment.

  3. Matte Lozenge says:

    The annoying thing about people saying “You’ll be fine” is that you put a lot of emotional effort into understanding, accepting, and adjusting to your new reality. Saying you’ll be fine is not only overcertain, it also devalues the emotional work you’ve done. People might mean well by it but it’s really not very supportive.

    On the other hand, they say people with blind faith and unreasonable optimism may have better health outcomes. The speaker could see “You’ll be fine” it as a benign form of meme insertion – aka harmless prayer.

  4. Michelle says:

    I like the idea that you have identified: Bravery requires that there be a choice, a freedom to walk away. And yet, as the other commenters have said, we think that you do have choices, and you are choosing to face this thing head-on and be courageous, and show us the good, the bad, and the ugly while you are doing it. Keep fighting. We’re with you.

  5. Phil says:

    “Nope. You do have choices. You could drown your sorrows in substance abuse, or take the real coward’s way out, suicide, but you haven’t.”

    I have to say that this isn’t a real cowards way out – doing what Jay has done is looking cancer in the eye and hitting back with an inner resilience that refuses to give up. Some people just cant find that inner resilience – doesn’t make them cowards – just makes them unable to bear the consequences of the daily grind against something they think they wont survive.

    Both outlooks call for an inner decision of soul searching extremes. Taking your life in such circumstances is nothing to do with being a coward.

    Having and dealing with cancer affects so many in so many different ways.

    I have never met anyone who took on the challenge be a lesser/weaker person for doing so. Conversely I totally understand the despair and defeat that leads to some giving up.

  6. Kyle David Jelle says:

    You’re right. “Coward” was a poor choice of words. It wasn’t necessary to disparage people who make different choices in order to highlight Jay’s strength, and it’s not hard to empathize with the people who have to make that choice. I apologize for my error.

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