The things you hear when you have cancer
People reacted differently to my diagnosis, and here’s where cancer etiquette applies. We need comfort, not advice.
I love the beach because it engages one in communion with the divine elements. I often stand at the beach and bury my feet in the sand. I joyfully delve into the sea and bask in the sun. Finally, I let myself be caressed by the whispering breeze.
However, as I write this, the only thought running through my head is that I will never experience these four elements together again; that I will never be able to go back to my beloved Karachi’s beaches - that I am as good as gone.
No family wants to hear what we were told the fine day of February 26 2011. The doctor told us:
"There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is the CT scan of your brain is clear. The bad news is your white blood count is abnormally high, which is suggestive of a certain type of leukemia… a cancer of the white blood cells. I’m really sorry. We have to admit you immediately."
People reacted differently to my diagnosis, and here’s where cancer etiquette comes into play. A cancer patient needs comfort, not advice. He needs hope, not assurances. He needs God, not religious lectures.
My friends from school and paternal cousins in Pakistan sent me gigantic get well soon cards. My friends from school here, in the US, have been angels - they’ve been with me throughout my time of need. But some friends and relatives cared too little while some cared too much.
I have learned that people should be more sensitive to the language they use when talking to a cancer patient. Phrases like ‘I am thinking of you’, ‘God willing everything will be fine’ and ‘you are stronger than you know’ certainly help.
Phrases like ‘Oh my God, I heard you have blood cancer’, ‘don’t cry’, and ‘I know exactly how you feel’ aren’t exactly the most helpful. Firstly, you don’t need to remind me of my condition. Secondly, I will cry when I want to. And lastly, don’t tell me you know exactly how I feel because you don’t.
Once, a very ‘religious’ man came to visit me in the hospital. I tolerated all his other ways of showing sympathy except one. He said:
‘We will pray for you, but you pray for us too. Allah listens to people with such ailments.’
I stared at him in disbelief. Here I was battling death and he wanted me to pray for him?
He spoke to me as if my cancer had given me a one-way ticket to God right then and there; as if I was a Pir; as if he had come to the grave of a saint and wanted me to intercede for him on the Day of Judgment. I have never felt so insulted in my entire life. A well-wisher’s job is to give hope, not take it away.
Another ‘Islamic’ lady called my mother and said that my condition was some sort of retribution for the sins she had committed. Some called and said I got cancer because of Michigan’s cold and I shouldn’t have moved here. It is hardly likely that my chromosomes saw the snow and mutated. Who cares why I got it? I have it; that’s that. It’s none of your business. Your job as well-wishers is to give strength, not try to find causes for a disease which even topnotch scientists have not been able to decipher.
What really ticked me off was the reaction of one individual who I hold in high regard. When I broke the news to him, one of his first questions was:
“Is stem-cell transplantation on the cards?”
I stared at the chat box in utter confusion. I think he was just trying to show off his Ivy League-vocabulary because I don’t think he knew that stem cell treatment is the last resort for a cancer patient. However, if he had known this fact, that makes him an even more insensitive “well-wisher.” Your job as a well-wisher is to be sensitive to the patient and listen to him first.
Lastly, details of my treatment are none of your business. Your job is to be there for me and pray for me. Knowing how many times a day I go for chemotherapy won’t make your prayers any more effective.
I could go on and on about things that have been said, and what I feel about them, but I think you get the point. I don’t mean to throw people’s prayer and concern back at them. All I mean to do is to communicate the idea that patients like me can be sensitive to the slightest undertone of hopelessness or coldness in the language used by their well-wishers.
Be there for them, pray for them, bring them flowers, hold their hands and tell them it will be okay. They too have wishes - they might want to go back to their country’s beaches one day and experience the divine elements dance around them like nothing ever happened.