Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Think Before You Speak

Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 03:44 PM

By Ronni Gordon

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Years ago, I took a bike trip with a friend who had an interesting method for protecting herself from the dogs that would dash out onto the road from the farmhouses dotting the beautiful landscape of Prince Edward Island.
 
Her method, she said, was that she dropped a “blue shield” around herself, and the dogs simply left her alone. This basically amounted to enveloping herself in a profound sense of calm so that there would be no fear for the dogs to react to.
 
Of course, this friend also spoke to deer. But she believed this blue shield to be real. And real or imagined, I tried it myself — and it worked for me too.
 
Sometimes I wish I had a blue shield that would stop people from making insensitive comments about cancer. It is the same thing that I would have liked during my pregnancies, when other women couldn’t resist telling me horrible labor stories.
 
It’s trite but true: People really should think before they speak.
 
The most blatant example I can think of came at a time when, having recently finished three grueling rounds of chemotherapy, I was 30 pounds underweight. I had taken off my scarf while chatting with a friend on a hot summer day.
 
“You look like a concentration camp victim!” she said. Because I’m Jewish, hearing that kind of thing was especially upsetting.
 
Another time a friend second-guessed a major decision my doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute had made. This was when I had “graft failure” after my second bone marrow transplant. The donor’s cells had simply packed up and left, leaving my bone marrow basically empty.
 
My doctors thought it was just a fluke. Because the donor was a good match (and good matches are hard to find), they asked him to donate again, and he agreed. This meant another round of chemotherapy for me and another hospitalization.
 
Six months later, I relapsed.
 
Years later, after I had finally received a transplant that worked, my friend said that she could not understand why they had used the donor again. I have wondered this myself, but I try to give it up into the hands of those who know better than I do.
 
Her intrusive comments just stirred up memories of going through chemotherapy again and getting so sick I nearly died.
 
Another blogger recently shared this advice about what to say to a person in crisis, quoting from a Los Angeles Times story co-authored by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.”
 
“Listening is often more helpful than talking,” they write. “But if you're going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don't say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ “
 
 

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Ronni Gordon is a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written extensively about health issues and her personal journey. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and has written for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications.
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