OP/ED: Words Never Easy With Cancer

Over a million and a half new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2011, according to the American Cancer Society.   That means there are millions of friends and family members struggling for the “right” thing to say to their loved ones.  Is there such thing?

A few weeks ago, a dear friend of mine that had been undergoing x-rays in search of a diagnosis to a growing lump in her neck, was told she in fact did have lymphoma, a form of cancer.  I found out from another friend via text and I was instantly nauseous.

Almost as hard as hearing the news is struggling for the right words to say to her.  I sifted through an array of cliché sayings:  “You’re going to be fine… we’ll beat this…  you’re so tough, you got this.”  Or apologetic statements stuffed with sympathy like:  “I am so sorry this is happening to you.”  Or just getting really angry, “This isn’t fair…‘expletive, expletive, expletive’ cancer.”

I came to the conclusion that she had probably already sorted through most of these emotions on her own and me reiterating them wouldn’t have a much of an impact either way, and it definitely wouldn’t cure the cancer.

One out of four deaths in the U.S. are due to cancer, making it the second leading cause of death.  When we find out someone close to us has cancer, we automatically fear the most devastating and severe outcome, but the survival rate for cancers across the board is actually 68 percent, according to the ACC, which is up from 50 percent 10 years ago, due to recent progress in diagnosing and treatment.

I settled on sending a simple text:  “I’m sorry and we will whoop that lymphoma’s butt.” And I offered to do anything I could to help her in any way.

I kept thinking how crazy I would be if I were her, how I would just break down and lose it.  And since she lives miles away, I could only picture her scared and hurting, cursing the toxic lump in her neck and wondering why it was happening to her.  I would be a disaster.

Much to my surprise, she quickly responded with “It’s doesn’t seem terrible.  Yeah we’ll whoop that lymphoma.  He-hee.”

Over the next few days we gossiped and talked about men and vacations, and she selflessly offered to proofread some homework of mine.  Still, nothing has changed and she is just as funny and witty as she’s ever been- although once, she bravely told me “maybe it just hasn’t set in yet.”

While doing some research on cancer, I came across an informative Do’s and Don’ts to say to people fighting cancer.  I was shocked that “Don’t tell them they look pale or sickly,” was included.  Really?   The rest of the list was carefully and delicately compiled of useful statements but overall, I felt the most important thing they mentioned was to keep treating the person as you always have.  It would drive me, as it would anyone, crazy if my friends or coworkers started babying or pitying me.

Lymphoma is not a death sentence; and the specific Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma MALT that my friend has been diagnosed has a high survival rate, about 80 percent when found in the first year, according to the ACC.  Her doctors are very optimistic; at the very worst she will have mild radiation, which won’t cause hair loss or too much discomfort.

The prognosis is anything but grim for my lovely friend due to her early detection, healthy lifestyle and the stellar reputation of her doctors.  I can’t credit her fate with anything I did or didn’t say. None of us can. So I’ll just be here to listen, to encourage, and above all, to stop searching for the “right words.”

– Jessi Rucker