One friend said he didn’t know how to talk to me. He’d been in touch with Macmillan Cancer Support, which had sent him a leaflet they thought would help. Search “how to talk to someone with cancer” and 56,500,000 results come up. I may have sounded flippant to him when I suggested he think of it as if I had a cold. He might ask me specifically how the cold is, he might even bring me round some soup, but the cold doesn’t define me. I’m still me. So let’s just talk.
I can understand people’s concern but it surprises me that we need guides to speaking to someone with cancer. Frankly it pisses me off that there are so many guides too on what not to say to someone with cancer, which suggest talking to your friend who happens not to be well has become some sort of tripwire challenge. As if a disease should suddenly turn so many millions of entirely unique individuals into one homogenised group, and presumably their friends and family into bumbling sociopaths incapable of holding a conversation. Certainly I couldn’t write a comprehensive guide on how to speak to people without cancer.
I’ve had this particularly hard to shift cold for a while now and I’m still not sure how to talk about it myself (although I promise I don’t call it a cold, that would be weird). That’s something that no one seems to talk about.
I realised early that brazen, gallows humour wasn’t suitable, at least not when speaking to people who really care about me. Celebrating my 31st birthday at my parents’ shortly after diagnosis, a story about the late great Amy Winehouse, born on exactly the same day as me, came on the telly. “At least I’m doing marginally better than her!” I piped up distastefully as my mum’s face dropped and silence descended on the room.
I’m still me but the cancer is a part of my life so it features in conversations with friends and family about as much as a job or irritating house problem might; sometimes not at all. Where acquaintances are concerned, I don’t want it to be a secret but I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable either.
I try to make it easy to talk to me but I know my mere presence – or rather, the presence of my cancer – might prove a bit of a buzzkill. It was easier when I could tell people I was on the mend but it’s now become an incurable diagnosis. My counsellor has suggested that some avoid talking to people with cancer because it scares them personally. We are all just a few rogue, quickly dividing cells away from something we don’t want to imagine. But we can imagine it – most people are capable of empathy – and happily most of the people in my life have proved willing to.
When my friend said he didn’t know how to talk to me he expressed concern that he would say the wrong thing. I told him there was no such thing as the wrong thing. Which of course is a blatant lie – I could tell you some right corkers. But I won’t, because the main thing is that those people at least spoke to me, which when you’re a bit scared, or lonely or just really feel the need to get a completely unrelated theory about your dogs’ propensity to poo being directly correlated to distance from a bin off your chest is all that matters.
And honestly nothing anyone can say is going to be bleaker or more upsetting than what my oncologist, or even worse, my own subconscious hasn’t already told me. For instance, I’ve convinced myself that during chemo I’m a deadringer for Ross Kemp. Now that’s upsetting.