What Not to Tell a Person with Cancer or Why I Feel Sick When You Tell Me I Look Good

There are many things you shouldn’t tell a person with cancer — especially that story about the acquaintance who died so soon after diagnosis. We’re unnaturally sensitive to your words. While we appreciate your care, concern and interest, we’re bound to get uppity at the most kindest of words. (I know because I’ve said some of them myself!)

Looking good in the jungles of Kaua'i

Looking good in the jungles of Kaua’i

The latest for me is: How many more chemo treatments will you have? At this stage in the game, my cancer game, that’s about as subtle as asking how much longer will I live. As I see it, as long as chemo is reducing the size of my many tumours, that’s as long as I’ll be on chemo. No more about that fairy tale called Remission.

I expect my body will give in to chemo before it’s erased the tumours. Caelyx (known as Doxil in the US) is already starting to show who’s boss. The blisters on my toes from the beach in Hawaii have healed. Between my fingers the sores come and go. My finger tips are criss-crossed with what looks like tiny paper cuts. There’s a wet blister on my right knee. Hives on my hands come and go with red spots on the inside of my left knee and  little sores on my legs. And some nausea, heartburn and a 2-week headache.

Chemo #5 resumes on Friday… I can’t wait to see what happens next.

“How are you?” ask my friends. Actually my friends don’t ask. They know better than to ask that question. Because the answer isn’t always good and that makes everyone uncomfortable. I try to answer and truth is always my goal, but that can bring fear and then tears to the eyes of my almost-friend and then there I am, trying to reassure them with a joke. “It’s all right,” I say, “I’m actually feeling good.” And then we move on and talk about the weather.

I also dislike the comment, “You look good!” My mother would say it with a touch of surprise as if she expected me to walk in haggard and boney. Not yet, I think. I say thank you, it’s a compliment and I must be gracious. But if I look good why do I feel nauseous? Why do I reach for a chair before my legs give way? And what does looking good mean at this stage of my life?

One of the benefits (if there are any) of a long endured cancer is the understanding you gain over many months. Five months ago I told the liver specialist, “On diagnosis, my cancer was stage 3B.”

“But that was then,” he replied as a matter of fact.

It had been six months since my cancer (I hate to personify those tumours. They are not mine, there were no gift.) spread to my liver. And two years before it attacked my colon and lungs. But only now I realized that I had reached stage 4. There is no stage 5. But end stage doesn’t mean it’s over. Now it’s all about living with cancer.

Colon, lungs, diaphragm, lymph nodes, liver — coming and going as they please. Metastatic glory.

The travelling show of cancer features cells touring through my body to take up residence — first as sub-centimetre nodules (as the radiologist writes) then as crazed tumours, plum-sized in six weeks.

Spot, deposit, nodule, lesion, tumour. What’s the difference? Only size. And will they carve these tumours from my bowel, my lungs, my liver? No. We leave it up to prayer (say some) and a half-litre bag filled with red syrup-like caelyx, a weedkiller renowned for its doubled-walled molecules, allowing it to loiter in my bloodstream — taking longer to dissolve, giving it more time in the ring to fight.

Think of me on Friday when I’ll be fighting the fight… and looking good.

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22 Responses to What Not to Tell a Person with Cancer or Why I Feel Sick When You Tell Me I Look Good

  1. Truly, we often don’t know what to say Rochelle. I hate that you’re having to go through this but so grateful for your beautiful writing and everything you have to say. Not lessons we ever wanted to learn but there you have it. Will be thinking of you on Friday. May it be a nonevent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ariela says:

    Yes, just how is one supposed to look? Haggard and boney, I guess, makes it easier on others — but not you. So Rochelle, yup, just be. And we’ll be thinking of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris Mann says:

    Your words of honesty are poems, cutting through to the heart of the matter, your documentation of how it is to live with an invasive cancer – in real terms, day by day. It’s true, people stumble through the most awkward of questions and comments and are not aware of how they sound, or what might rumble forth from within you, in those small places of tenderness or misunderstanding. It is you I embrace in kindness – everyday. And on Friday, I will light a candle for you…. and will savour the light that shines from your being.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Got the message… thank you. Thinking of you… from Edmonton. Constance

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mary Louise Doherty says:

    As always Rochelle, very well written with your straight forward honesty. When our friends see us and make these comments, I am sure with the best intentions to lift our spirits, they do not see the mental callisthenics we go through everyday. Being strong women, we quite cleverly hide the constant mental plotting and scheming we go through trying to steer our way on a ship that has no rudder.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like your analogy, Mary Louise…. a ship that has no rudder. No radar either.


  7. Hi Rochelle–some of my friends contributed to this video “Dumb Stuff People Say to People With Metastatic Breast Cancer” I think you might relate! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fluBsPbP68

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Betsy C says:

    Rochelle Thanks for thinking about those of us who do care about you & showing us how we can show our support in a way that rings true. I admire how you are dealing with this & will do a meditation for you on Friday…..sending you healing energy from NZ

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kate says:

    I’ll say a prayer for you on Friday, Rochelle. And on other days, too…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Lynne says:

    You continue in my prayers…I will be sending much love across the water tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Jacky says:

    I have been feeling kind of miserable lately about looking so old. It’s kind of like a plateau, things look much the same for a while, then I fall to the next level of wrinkles, achiness and forgetfulness, and trouble climbing hills, but I also have to remember how lucky I am to be sliding down these plateaus at all after escaping from the cancer monster. Best wishes Rochelle and thank you for your wonderful blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Jacky, Thanks for your comments. Sometimes making one change (a new haircut, trying a new recipe, a walk in a different park) can make all the difference in how we feel, whether the wrinkles change or not.
    All the best,


  13. Rob Mingay says:

    Rochelle, Thank you for your honesty. I wish we had spent time, quality time. I’m late to this. I am moved by your words. Rob


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