Cancer can bring out the stupid in people. Complete strangers and well-meaning acquaintances blurt out the most insensitive things right to survivors’ faces.
Nita, who had a double mastectomy after she got breast cancer in her late twenties, was told by a coworker, “I don’t know why you are so hung up on breasts. Look at me; mine are small.” Another survivor I know went to a new dentist, and when the dentist learned from Haley’s intake form that she had cervical cancer, he asked her, “How many sexual partners did you have?”
Inappropriate remarks are painful enough when they come from people we barely know, but when they come from friends, they hurt even more.
One of my friends said she kept imagining my funeral. Another told me I had likely caused my breast cancer by being stressed out. Another said it probably wouldn’t damage my baby too much if gave him formula instead of breast milk during chemo, but then again maybe it would.
I know each one of these women cared about me. I know they wanted me to get better. I know they said these things out of a combination of anxiety, ignorance, and inexperience.
And that was part of the problem. When you get cancer in your twenties and thirties, most of your friends have no idea what the heck to say to you. They could counsel you through break ups and baby troubles, but cancer just isn’t on their radar screens yet.
When Elan was 27 years old, he learned he had a malignant tumor the size of a football lodged between his sacrum and hip bone. He underwent massive surgery and slogged through years of physical therapy in order to progress from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to a limp. “When this happens to you at a younger age, you friends don’t know how to react. It’s not the norm to get sick. At an older age, people are seasoned, and their friends are seasoned. But mine just didn’t have the experience.”
Survivors learn to disregard clueless comments if we know the person means well. It’s the absent friends who are harder to understand. Most of my friends helped me in practical and emotional ways that truly helped me, but some just couldn’t do it. I told one family friend I had cancer right after I got diagnosed. I didn’t see him again for nine months, and frankly, by then I barely wanted to.
Most survivors have a similar story. One woman I know had just finished graduate school in Atlanta when she got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s at 28. Her family gave her tons of support, but, she told me, “I learned the true character of someone I thought was one of my best friends. I didn’t know that in a crisis someone I loved would leave and not weather the storm.”
I once asked a group of young survivors if they held grudges against friends like that.
“It isn’t a grudge,” someone answered. “It’s clarity.”
People provide you with clues about how much they can cope with, what kind of information they can handle, when you can count on them. We aren’t being unforgiving when we remember this. We are being sensible.
And we are protecting our feelings. If you feel frightened after leaving the oncologist’s office, you don’t call a friend who will get so nervous talking about death that she’ll start complaining about her annoying roommate. Instead, you call someone who has proven she can listen, respect your fears, and ease your mind.
The comforting friend may not be the one you expected. Nearly every survivor I have spoken to said they were wonderfully surprised by people who rose to the occasion in unanticipated ways.
Kathleen, a fellow breast cancer survivor, told me, “The friends I thought would support me didn’t, but then people came out of the woodwork and turned into my greatest champions.” When Dan got testicular cancer, a buddy he hadn’t seen in awhile flew into town. “He sat through the first two days of chemo. That meant a lot to me. We went to this horrible infusion center, and he livened it up.”
Survivors may have an elephant’s memory for the callous, insensitive comments people make, but we also recall with great appreciation the compassionate, generous, and loving acts of those friends who showed up and helped us through.
Emily Cousins is a writer and editor who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 32 and nine-months pregnant with her first child. She is currently writing a book about what it's like for young survivors once cancer treatment is over-when the radiation burns have healed and the hair has started to come back, but everything else is completely out of whack. After almost a decade living in New York City, Cousins now resides in Northern Arizona with her husband, son, and the daughter she was lucky to have post chemo.