2008-07-31 / Editorial Page

Dear Hearts and Gentle People

I really wish I could find something funny to say about the "C" word but I can't. Let a doctor say "cancer" to you and see how hard you laugh. Three years ago I heard the dreaded word. I had come to after surgery and with a room full of family all trying to talk at the same time the only word I picked up on was cancer. Yes, I had cancer but it was easily treatable, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, I heard not one other word the rest of the afternoon and I doubt if my experience is that unique.

Growing up most of us never gave a thought to cancer, to heart attacks, to most anything that would cause us harm. One of the blessings of youth I suppose, stupidity.

I've written about this before but the day I was scheduled to have my chemotherapy port put in, I was given some wonderful news. I had no cancer! I also had no doubt that God had intervened and fingered around with a frozen section that had proved my prior diagnosis. I am, and always will be, ever so thankful and humbled by that good news.

I wish such news were available to every single patient undergoing chemotherapy at University Hospital and other places but I know that's unrealistic. In this life there is pain, there is doubt, there is fear. But I also know without a shadow of a doubt that there are those, many in fact, who will beat the disease that now besets them. It happens every day and will continue to happen. How wonderful is that!

I've spent a lot of time lately at the 6th floor oncology ward at University. My mother's hemoglobin refuses to rise to its acceptable level and she and I have been making treks to Augusta for several weeks now trying to find the magic bullet that will fire up the old blood count. Waiting our turn to see the doctor, we usually sit in a couple of chairs facing the window lined room full of recliners attached to tall IV stands looking like so many TV antennae.

There is laughing, lots and lots of laughing. Precious old ladies and cute young things with hot pink hats and multicolored bandanas cluck like a bunch of hens at a Tupperware party and handsome men, some beyond their prime, sport bald shiny pates and broad-toothed grins. Hope reigns eternal on the 6th floor and it makes me feel good just to be around this bunch.

I've learned a few things watching and listening to those coming and going, things that most of you may not know (I didn't), but need to know. Some of these suggestions have come from the patients themselves and some from the nurses and family members. I call the list 'Things NOT to Say to a Cancer Patient.' Now, if you've said any or all of these things at some point don't beat yourself up about it. We're human and, face it, sometimes we just flat don't know what to say. Well, don't say these:

1. "You could step on a curb tomorrow and get hit by a bus" (not a good analogy, it's like I've already been hit by the bus, now it's backing up over me.)

2. "You've got to think positively." (Okay, I'm positive I have cancer, and I'm positive it isn't fun)

3. "You'll be fine."

4. "My grandmother died of that."

5. "God gives you only what you can handle."

6."What's your prognosis?"

7."If anyone can beat it, it's you."

8. "If it's not your time, it's not your time." (Then why bother with the surgery and treatment?)

9."Life's not fair." (thanks for the heads up)

10. "Every cloud has a silver lining."

11. "Don't worry."

12. "You look good bald."

13. "So, was the cancer bad?" (No, I had the good kind)

14. "You know, if you eat more curry, it's supposed to kill cancer cells." (Great tip, thanks.)

15. "You'll be fine. You have a great attitude." (If attitude really matters then why did I get cancer in the first place? Or does attitude only matter after you get cancer? Right now my attitude about cancer is lousy. What does that mean?)

16. "Don't worry. Your hair will grow back."

17. "Pray for a miracle." (Of course patients want to be prayed for, but telling them that they need a miracle indicates they have a poor prognosis indeed.)

Dear hearts, people with cancer want you to know some things:

..It's okay if you happen to say or do the wrong thing.

..We like to hear success stories, not horror stories.

..We need you to listen to us and let us cry.

..We need to forget, and laugh.

..We need to feel hope.

..Telling us to think positively can make us feel worse.

..Take us to funny movies.

..Tell us funny jokes.

..We want to hear that people love us and will be by our sides through the whole ordeal.

..Tell us it's normal to be depressed. ..We need comfort, not advice. ..We need compassion, not pity.

A few more suggestions: ..Set up a prayer or silent unity group ..Do research for the patient ..Rub the patient's feet

..Send cards, postcards, and letters

..Pay to have the patient's house cleaned

..Do something for the patient's spouse or children

And, as one of the nurses said: "Cancer is just a word, not a sentence!"

Here's to all of you on the 6th floor! "Git-R-done!"

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