A man rowing over a sea of word bubbles in his boat

Do You Talk to Your Cancer?

I was asked an unexpected question the other day: “Do you talk to your cancer?”

Frankly, I wasn't sure what to say, and unclear what sort of answer they were seeking. Given how many questions I get about my cancer, this was refreshingly new, but more of that in a moment.

A difficult guest

The simple answer is no, I don’t talk to the intruder in my prostate, but I do come close. My cancer is certainly a character who right from the get-go I called my Unwelcome Guest. It became the name of my original cancer blog.

Inevitably I mined the term for all its metaphorical worth. So, there was always talk in the blog about the ‘guest’ checking out, and once I was in remission, there was the inevitable fear of him checking back in. At one point I remember talking about cancer as someone who overstays his welcome, leaves the bath taps running, floods your apartment, and brings the ceiling down. I became a bellboy to a nightmare lodger.

In these days, when personal pronouns have taken on a whole new significance, I always thought of my guest as masculine. I suppose this is hardly surprising, as no woman has a prostate. Despite this, I have no objections if people do talk to their cancers and would quite like to know what is said. My only concern would be if the cancer started talking back.

Talking to others

Cancer has always been a minefield when it comes to conversations with friends and family. One gambit I used to fear when I was first diagnosed was: "Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you." It was always intended as something positive and an attempt to be helpful, but it always seemed to leave the onus on me, the patient, to come up with something they could do.

Inevitably I was reduced to saying that’s kind, but the conversation would peter out with nobody feeling good about it. Far better to say, if you’re up to it, "Can I come over and bring some food," or perhaps buy them a thoughtful present. Vague offers of help are well-intended but tend to end up being a conversational cul-de-sac.

All cancers are different

The other conversational gambit that it’s probably best to avoid is talking about other people’s cancer. Perhaps someone they know, or some celebrity has just "beaten cancer." I cringe every time I hear someone in the public eye say they have put cancer behind them. Of course, we all want to beat it, overcome it, and move on with our lives, but that’s often not how cancer works.

All cancers are different, so I think comparing a friend’s cancer with someone we know virtually nothing about from a medical point of view is of little use. It may actually be counter-productive if your friend’s cancer has taken a turn for the worse.

Don't say nothing

Perhaps I’m feeling a bit over-sensitive about all this. My cancer treatment concluded almost exactly a year ago, and I’m in remission. But this week, as of my writing this, I had one of my biannual PSA tests. Inevitably, my ‘stats-angst’ started to build, and while I should be fine and there should be no ‘evidence of disease,’ I’m not going to bet the farm on it.

Finally, and this may sound like I’m contradicting all I’ve just said, but if I could give one word of advice to those who know someone with cancer and don’t know what to say, it’s this: don’t say nothing. You may mess up, you may say the wrong thing, but I think most sufferers would agree that nothing is the hardest word. Embrace them and bring them in from the cold.

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