cancer chatter

My daughter and I attended a college preview day Saturday morning at a local school of nursing. We sat through the usual informational details until the last half hour or so when a woman came to discuss the specifics about the required coursework for the different paths a student could take.  She said that when she started out she worked in obstetrics and eventually ended up working with cancer patients. She chuckled as she shared that she started out working to bring life into the world and switched to working with cancer patients, who died. She laughed, saying that must “say something about” her. I’m not sure what that would be, but what it was saying to me was that she hadn’t learned enough about working with cancer patients. She was missing some important knowledge.

My daughter (protectively) was put off by her words and her manner, but I let it slide, knowing that most people make those assumptions. (Although, you’d hope a medical professional might know that death isn’t always the outcome of cancer.) To most people, cancer means death, but it doesn’t always, as I’m living proof.

The session continued and a few minutes later she made another statement along the same vein. I was starting to feel ill at ease because of her insensitivity, knowing there had to be others in the room who have loved ones with cancer or have had a close call themselves, or who were going through the harrowing journey presently. I couldn’t believe that she would be so careless. But I thought, she’s just not thinking and I let it go.

By the third time, I decided I’d need to have a little chat with her. But, after we’d finished taking the campus tour she was no longer in the meeting room.

My daughter and I went out for lunch later to talk about her impressions, thoughts and feelings about the campus and the potential of attending. The topic she wanted to focus on first, though, was the woman and her unwise cancer chatter.

It’s a sad fact that if a person hasn’t endured a tremendous loss or hasn’t suffered from a disease, they can be painfully unaware of the impact their words can have on someone who is suffering. What’s  more disappointing is that someone who has worked with people coping with the invasion of cancer into their bodies and lives, can sum it all up with such ease in a few ill-chosen words.

She could have said something as simple as, “I started working with babies, but changed to work with people who are fighting cancer.”

It seems to be just semantics and someone might think, what’s the big deal, if they haven’t endured that arduous journey. But when you have and have almost lost the fight on more than one occasion, and when it’s been an excruciatingly long, intensely steep, uphill battle just to hang on let alone regain some normalcy and restore a semblance of ‘life before cancer’ (which will never be the same), those words are painful to hear. More than the words, the casual way they are tossed out there, that’s what’s painful. It’s foolish chatter.

In her defense, I’m sure if she had thought for a second that someone like me was listening, she would have been wiser. Unfortunately, we live in a day where many face cancer, so she should always assume there is someone in the audience that is.

When I learned in early 2005 that I’d have to have a radical double mastectomy, Les and I were devastated. One day a woman stopped to chat with Les and asked about me. She said, “At least she won’t be losing anything she needs.”  What is that supposed to mean? Her words stabbed. They were foolish and insensitive. Cancer chatter. Words spoken without thinking. Words uttered without considering the effect they may have.

Some words are better left unspoken.

Another time, a relative called to ‘encourage us’ when he heard I had cancer a second time. He proceeded to tell us about a friend he had who’d had cancer and he “prayed and prayed for her for a long time, but she died. And I’m praying for you too,” he said. (Gee, thanks.) Cancer chatter.

Why is it that when talking about cancer, everyone has a story, and it’s usually bad? It is the greatest insensitivity to go on and on about all the people you’ve known who have died from cancer. How is that helpful? It may make you feel like you have something in common, but it makes the one facing that nightmare feel more stressed and awkward.

My philosophy on cancer chatter is, if you don’t have something positive or uplifting to say, then don’t say it. (That is also a great motto for life that my mother ingrained in me.) There are plenty of other subjects to discuss. Please, tell a person you’re praying for them if you are, but don’t tell them about the many people you’ve prayed for that didn’t make it. They already know enough horror stories. They need that one-in-a-million story that will give them hope, that will lighten their heart and be a breath of fresh air in the midst of the stifling acrid air of the battle-field they’re dragging themselves across.

I remember receiving a letter from a woman in early 2000, not long after I learned I had cancer the first time. She told me about her mother who had gotten cancer as a younger woman but was still alive and well. She’d gotten it in her 30’s and was now in her 80’s! Now that is the kind of story every cancer patient wants to hear! People facing cancer need to hear about someone who fought and won and is now enjoying a long, fruitful life. I still have that card and live with that hope in my heart!

The moral of this real-life story is, when talking about cancer, or speaking to someone who is fighting it, think before you speak. Careless cancer chatter cuts to the core. Even when we don’t mean to, our words can wound. People who are fighting cancer have been hijacked by it. They are victims of an insidious invader. They are real people who have jobs and hobbies and families and hopes and dreams, yet, when they learn they have cancer, they become cancer to others. Suddenly there isn’t anything else to talk about. Sometimes people suffering from cancer just need to forget they have it and talk about anything but cancer. They need to be treated as they were before they learned the awful truth.

It’s probably a good thing that I’m reserved (in public, at least!) I was sorely tempted to raise my hand that morning and tell her I was not appreciating her insensitive cancer chatter. It was unnecessary and it wasn’t funny.

Just for the record, I’ve spent most of the last decade fighting two different kinds of cancer, and now I am a two-time cancer survivor! I want anyone who is facing that dreaded and hated disease to know that there is hope. Cancer doesn’t always mean death! Now that’s something to talk about!


6 Responses to “cancer chatter”

  1. Bonnelle Says:

    I understand and so appreciate your words. My son was diagnosed with Leukemia when he was 12 and he’s now 18 and cancer free(Praise the Lord)! We had a nurse when he was at Children’s who was very harsh and not real patient or caring so I have seen and heard the harsh words too. I wondered at the time why she was in the profession she was in when her heart didn’t seem to be in it. People living with and fighting this dreaded disease need love and compassion and patience and kindness. I pray this lady will receive understanding from the Lord as to how powerful words really are.

    Many blessings to you and Praise the Lord for a good report at your 6 month checkup!

  2. Rochelle Says:

    Kris, First of all I love reading about your thoughts, your memories, your conversations with your family; but most importantly the conversations you have with yourself.

    Secondly, I appreciate how real you are with those around you, especially with Bailey. The individuals that we meet on a daily basis can impact how we feel, how we respond and eventually how we view the world and life circumstance. So often the lack of hope and faith of others can send our belief system into a whirl…. How do we share everlasting hope and faith when our personal circumstances are less than what we believe or want? Just a question that makes me think about how do I show and live my faith…

    You are a joy! Rochelle Eigsti

  3. Shireen Says:

    Awesome post! Very well said.

  4. Charlotte Dean Hartley Says:

    Kris, you’re so right! I’ll never forget the cancer chatter we heard between the doctors before they told us they hadn’t been able to remove all of my mom’s ovarian cancer. Talk about devestated…it was my MOM they were talking about..not just some patient. No one had bothered to tell us the news!
    They were so clinical and cold. I know they were professionals, but some kindness would have been very welcomed at that moment. The good news is..Mom beat it! 4th stage ovarian cancer…and it’s been 15 years! Keep the faith! (And keep writing…I found your blog thru Les..and it is a blessing!)

  5. Claudia Kaser Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Kris. There are so many truths in your words! My mom was just diagnosed with esophageal cancer, so this is a new journey for our family. I’ve already seen some of the things happen you mentioned in your blog, both the positive and the negative.

    I would guess that the head of the department of that school would be very interested in your words. There are many more things to learn in school than just academics, and that woman certainly hasn’t learned them all! She may be gifted in some areas, but her words need some fine tuning. Perhaps you were in there for such a time as this. Jenn has it figured out.


  6. Jenn Black Says:

    Wow Kris I can’t even imagine being in that room and having something so serious be spoken about so flippantly. I would hope that a nurse to cancer patients would bring a listening ear, a fighting spirit to keep a person hopeful and seeing the future they still have than just simply believing that is the end. Makes me wonder how many ofthose in her care gave up hope and actually quit fighting because of her inability to bring hope. I think I will pray her eyes be opened to the fact she needs to be a barer of hope and life not death. Makes me want to volunteer to be someones hope in their cancer fight. Or maybe I need to pray that she meet the Great GodThatProvidesThe hope. AfterAllYou can’t give what you don’t have. Sorry for the book but this one really grieved me and praise God, that is not a battle I or any of my family have had to fight and quite frankly I hope never do. Blessings Jenn 😉

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