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The Time I Said a Stupid Thing about Cancer

A cancer survivor should be the last person to say a stupid thing about cancer. Yet a stupid thing about cancer is what I said. The PTSD that many of us have explains it, though it doesn’t excuse it. We can be easily triggered. At least I caught myself quickly, apologized, reversed course, and went in a more helpful direction.

Putting my foot in my mouth

It wasn’t about cancer specifically but rather a sign of cancer. Here’s what happened. After my friend told me that her husband had lymphoma, I asked how he knew. She said he lost a lot of weight in a short period of time. I have also lost a lot of weight, about 20 pounds, though not in a short period of time. My doctors know about it and think it has more to do with my calorie intake not keeping up with my activity level.

“I lost a lot of weight too. I hope I don’t have lymphoma,” I said, or something like that. She assured me that it was not the same thing. I immediately felt horrible.

I was insensitive

She was the one with a problem, and I was making it about me. As you can see, this doesn’t fall squarely in the stupid things people say. It’s more in the insensitive things people say. In general, making it more about your own fears is not a great thing. I told her I was sorry that I had made it more about myself than about her and her husband. She said she understood. We moved on.

Now, trying to me helpful

He is going to be treated at the same cancer hospital where I was treated for AML, and that set the stage for being helpful. I was going to say “make amends,” but that seemed severe. I don’t think it’s healthy to beat ourselves up over this kind of thing, though it is healthy to be aware.

I reminded her of how the hospital staff had rescued me from the jaws of death, how I was in a coma and in kidney failure after my fourth stem cell transplant, and they brought me back.

I told her that when she was ready, I could connect her with some resources.

Providing concrete support

These included a specialist who arranged hotel accommodations at bargain basement prices should she need to stay overnight while he was getting treatment. (We are about 90 miles from the cancer center.) I could also connect her with the coordinator of the One-to-One program, which matches volunteers like me, who have “been there,” with new patients who can ask questions about the treatment. I told her I had a great social worker, though it turned out they already had one.

When Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) announced on Dec. 22 that he had a serious but curable form of cancer, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, I thought of pointing this out to my friend. In favor of pointing it out is that Raskin is very positive.1 Also it adds to a sense of community to know of other people who have something similar.

But she follows the news, and I figured she already knew. Maybe she didn’t need me pointing it out. And maybe the whole inner dialogue amounted to over thinking. I had put my foot in my mouth once and didn’t want to do it again. I think it would be fine to point it out and fine not to. It’s good to recognize it when you’ve said a stupid thing about cancer but then not so good to second-guess everything.

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