Dropping the Cancer Bomb

Dropping a bomb or sabotage — what does it feel like when you get the news of someone’s cancer second hand or by accident? That is what I have been pondering this afternoon since offhandedly mentioning my blog address in conversation earlier, without pausing to put its content in context. Since I don’t look like I am sick, a non-subtle reveal that I have lung cancer can be like a slap across the face. It’s a shock. One I deliver, I expect, far more often than I intend to.

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that it should not be my problem, that I should not feel obligated to hold somebody’s hand when I tell them about my “health condition,” and that I cannot be responsible for another person’s reaction to my disease. But I also consider the reality that most people know someone, quite often family or a close friend, who has struggled with a form of cancer. Depending on where you get your statistics the numbers vary slightly, but no matter which source you use the bottom line is that over a third of us develop some form of cancer. That means out of every ten people you know, three or four of them are likely to have cancer at some point in their life. It is no surprise, therefore, that on my street alone I know of seven patients — and I should stress that those are only the ones I know of within less than two blocks, not necessarily the absolute total for the street. Also, I’m not particularly social or friendly, in case that is relevant to knowing what neighbors are up to. In other words, there are probably more of us on this stretch already. 

Because the frequency of cancer in all its myriad forms is so high, I assume that it is difficult to approach the topic without some baggage. And that baggage can be pretty heavy. While it may not be my job to act as a bellboy, the least I can do is be sensitive to the fact that carrying such baggage might be difficult enough, without someone abruptly turning the key and popping the lock on the biggest suitcase, spilling its contents all over the lobby floor.

I hope that when I tell people about my diagnosis or the years of treatment that I have endured, they are not immediately conjuring up images of horrific suffering, repressed memories, or deep sadness that has taken years to come to terms with. Perhaps I work too hard to downplay my own experience, to minimize its effect on my audience, but the truth is that my treatment is such a regular part of my life that I find it hard to consider what I go through as “extraordinary” or even “difficult.” I speak of it casually, but I admit that I also put effort into disarming my fellow conversationalists, to take away or reduce the power of the word, “cancer.”

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Selfishly, this serves my personal narrative. I’m the guy who rises above my disease. I’m the guy who forges on, promotes his brand of pragmatic optimism, lives for the moment, etc., etc. It also serves the narrative that I am trying to reframe, that of Cancer (with the capital “C”) and specifically of lung cancer, because so many people are still locked in old portrayals of the disease and a misunderstanding of modern medical treatments. Still, none of that matters when someone suddenly, inexplicably, reminds you of how your uncle or sister or close childhood friend died, leaving you hopeless or angry or confused or devastated. It isn’t my right to just randomly slap you across your face. Or punch you in your heart.

So I respectfully disagree that it isn’t my problem how another person might react to the news of my cancer. I may not be able to control someone else’s response, nor should I feel guilty about how anyone else responds to a situation over which I have no control, but I can still be sensitive about how I present information and I can still be aware that we are, after all, in this thing together. Maybe I’m more fortunate than that person you knew. Maybe medical science has simply improved. Maybe a lot of things. But we are in the here and now. We are touching or speaking; we are communicating in the present tense; we are breathing the same air and feeling the rays of the same sun. I don’t want to shock or hurt you, but sometimes it is inevitable that I am going to be honest or blunt or simply unaware that the words coming out of my mouth contain loaded information.

When you set off a bomb, you have to take responsibility for the fallout. That’s why I take pains to minimize the explosions, to pressurize the atmosphere enough that the air cannot be completely sucked out. And in the remaining oxygen, most of the time, there is still a better story to tell.

A chart of countries with the highest incidences of cancer can be found here.

An interesting map of worldwide cancer incidents can be found here.

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