It feels like the walls are caving in lately. There’s sickness and uncertainty on every side, and it seems that each time I find a new refuge, the darkness worms its way in. It is like it is chasing me, and I can’t run fast enough to get away.
My grandmother has cancer.
A former sunday school student has cancer.
A dear friend has cancer again.
Everything is pink this month, half of which is useless because that money won’t go to research and treatment.
And I can’t do anything about it.
All I can do is sit with my grandmother and let her know that I love her and I’m there whenever she needs me. She’s in surgery as I type this, surgery to remove the cancerous tumor in her colon, her right-side abdominal lymph nodes, and her appendix.
It’s the same for the others. All I can do is offer help and be there if and when it’s needed. Cancer isn’t something that you can beat if you just gather enough people together. There are no armies, no united effort against a common enemy. Cancer is a personal battle. Doctors can recommend treatments, pharmacists can dispense medicine, friends and family can offer support, but it comes down to one person fighting against their own body for the right to live.
This results in a strange paradox: the closer you are to someone with cancer, the more helpless you feel. The more frustration you encounter, the more anger you have to try to surpress, the more it hurts each time you think of what the future holds. The temptation to pull away is great, the idea that it will hurt less because it will be easier to put up emotional shields from a distance.
This results in an even stranger paradox: the further you are away from someone with cancer, the more helpless you feel. The less information you have on treatments, on prognosis, on day-to-day strength and emotional well-being, on needs. The more frustration you encounter, the more anger you have to try to supress, the more it hurts each time you think of the person because damn it but you weren’t supposed to feel anything anymore.
This leads me to my conclusion: cancer sucks all around. It sucks for those far-removed, it sucks for those closer, and it really sucks for the person with cancer. Everyone is frustrated, everyone is angry, everyone is hurting, and there’s just no way to avoid it.
So, I have to ask. Can we all understand this, and agree that we should think before we speak? Emotions surrounding cancer are always already at the breaking point, and careless words, even well-intentioned ones, can cut deeper than you can imagine.
Now, there are countless posts and articles about what to say/ what not to say to someone with cancer. I don’t care what those say. What should be/ should not be said is different for every case and every person, and I’m not going to make a list here.
What I do want to make clear is this: it is OK to say nothing. I don’t mean that it is OK to not react to someone’s diagnosis. Ignoring someone’s suffering is just as painful as mispeaking, because the silence leaves the words to the imagination.
What I mean is that it is perfectly acceptable to send a note without words, an email without text, or a text without characters. Send a picture of a happy memory, of a beautiful garden, of a dog just joyful to be outside. If the idea of a blank text box terrifies you, know that just the words “I’m here” can mean more than you can imagine.
Because even though cancer has to be fought by just one, no one says that you can’t have one or two or nine companions along the way. (Yes, I did just make a Lord of The Rings reference in a blog post about cancer. These things happen.) There may be no tangible way to help, no physical presence requested, but that doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t need anything from you.
So the next time you find yourself at a loss for words because you are too afraid of saying the wrong thing, remember that words aren’t everything. Don’t let a fear of words keep you from acknowledging an illness. We communicate primarily with words, yes, but there are so many other ways to express support and love.
And sometimes, it is OK to say nothing at all.