What are you supposed to say when someone tells you that they have cancer? It's not good news, so a hearty congratulations isn't in order. But it isn't necessarily a death sentence, so you want to go easy on the reminiscing. And platitudes are so meaningless that you might as well save your breath. So what exactly are you supposed to say?
I've been told that a loved one has cancer three times in my life. The first person who told me they had cancer was my best friend, Vernissa. She called me late one evening and I asked what was wrong. She replied, "I have cancer, girl." The news hit me like a sledgehammer, but I asked questions about what stage the cancer was and, though it already sounded ominous, I remained upbeat and asked about her treatment plan. V elected to treat her cancer with a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. The cancer was gone after the first round of treatments. But it quickly returned - seemingly stronger than before. It spread from her breasts to her lymph system, bones, and brain. One of my most painful memories is remembering how tiny she looked lying in a coma in that hospital bed at the very end. She almost looked like a sleeping child if you could ignore the equipment that kept her living. She was never married and she never gave birth, but she packed a lot of living in her life - even after her diagnosis. She had a true joie de vivre. And she died when she was only 36 years old.
The second person who told me they had cancer is my good friend, Mary. We were at a party and I found out because another friend (who is also a co-worker of hers) was asking about her treatment options. Mary also had breast cancer. I heard this news not long after Vernissa's passing and I couldn't really offer any encouragement because I kept thinking that cancer had just killed my best friend. I literally had nothing to say and the news completely took me by surprise because she's one of the healthiest people I know. She works out every day of the week before 5:00 am, she participates in 100 mile bike rides, and she eats a very healthy diet. She also chose to treat her cancer with a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. One of her biggest concerns was whether or not she'd still be able to work out while undergoing treatment. Mary beat her cancer and is living cancer-free.
The third person who shared their cancer diagnosis with me is my father. We already knew that he has a potentially life-threatening health problem and he just got the cancer diagnosis over the holidays. I assumed something was up because they called to ask if we could get together for dinner and we generally don't see each other unless we're celebrating a special occasion. Though they live less than 20 miles away, I guess we just aren't that close these days. My head wasn't in the dinner because I had an emotionally trying day and I had my own bad news that I was mulling over. They casually dropped his colon cancer diagnosis in dinner conversation. I responded that I knew something was up because they were acting strange and I asked if it has metastasized. They replied that at this point it is believed to be contained, so I inquired about the treatment plan. As far as they knew it would be effectively treated by removing a couple feet of his intestine. I replied that if you have to have cancer, this sounds like the best way to have it and the outlook sounds good.
They made a big deal of telling me that my siblings had already been told about this colon cancer diagnosis. I didn't quite understand the point of telling me that, and I still don't, but okay. I explained that they should have called me while they were calling everyone else. They kept going on and on about how they wanted to tell me in person. Why, exactly, I don't know.
I could tell that they were a little puzzled at my response because they kept repeating themselves. It's as though they were looking for a different reaction so they kept rewording things to get a new response. They even went so far as to imply that I should have told them that I wouldn't be up for company. My husband has told me that my reaction left my parents highly perplexed.
I'm not a highly emotional person and I have to be somewhat guarded with these two people anyway. I would have probably responded differently a couple of years ago, but I wasn't going to fake a reaction to please their expectations for drama - so sue me. I would have felt more concerned if they told me that his cancer has metastasized and it's considered Stage II or higher. But at this point it hasn't and it isn't.
So what exactly would have been the correct reaction? What were they looking for me to do? Was I supposed to cry and tear at my clothes? Would it have been more appropriate to say, "Wow, you have cancer. Good luck with that!", and punch him on the arm? Should I have begun wailing and moaning in grief? I mean, it sounds pretty straightforward and the prognosis sounds excellent. It isn't like he has a pancreatic cancer or lung cancer diagnosis. It's colon cancer and it's very treatable if it's caught early - and it sounds like it has been.
Maybe I'm a jerk. Maybe I'm a lousy daughter. Maybe I should have responded like an emotional wreck if it would have pleased them. But, in retrospect, I wouldn't have responded any differently. I'm not a fraud and, like them or not, my thoughts and feelings were true.