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

The Things People Say

Tuesday, 18 Mar 2014 04:19 PM

By Ronni Gordon

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I don’t tell people about my cancer history very often, but sometimes it comes up. It did recently, and someone made a very strange comment.
 
After a day of playing tennis with some new acquaintances, I mentioned that I was going to have a tooth pulled, and that the reason for the tooth's poor condition was my weakened immune system due to chemotherapy and prednisone. I further explained that the prednisone had been prescribed to decrease inflammation brought on by a bone marrow transplant, which I had needed to treat leukemia.
 
(A friend with a similar history said she was thinking of making up note cards summarizing the details so she wouldn’t have to repeat such a story.)
 
The next time I saw one of my tennis companions, he wanted to talk to me about screen savers; he knew of places on the Internet to get beautiful, calming images such as waterfalls for my computer.
 
"When you've faced the grim reaper, you could use some beautiful pictures to look at," he said.
 
When I said I was happy with my own screen saver, he seemed taken aback … but so was I.
 
Even though they are well-meaning, people can make some odd and often offensive comments about your past or present in dealing with cancer.
 
Once, a friend visited me after I had lost almost 20 pounds during my first round of chemotherapy. When I took off the scarf that covered my bald head, she gasped.
 
“You look like you just got out of a concentration camp!” she exclaimed.
 
You shouldn’t say that to anyone — least of all to someone who is Jewish.
 
Long after my hair grew back in, I still carried the driver’s license with a picture of me with a scarf on my head. When I showed my license while opening a charge account at a furniture store, the saleswoman asked, “What kind of cancer did you have?”
 
Maybe I was being oversensitive, but I found that comment intrusive. Personally, I don’t think people should ask cancer-specific questions such as “How is your breast cancer?”
 
In her blog about living with metastatic breast cancer, Lisa Bonchek Adams posted some of the stupid things people say, including:
 
“It will all be OK, I just know it.”
 
“Someday you will put this all behind you” (to a stage IV patient)
 
“Don’t worry, things will get better.” (to a stage IV patient)
 
“But you don’t look sick.”
 
“Lance Armstrong cured his stage IV cancer. You can too.”
 
“But I thought you had chemo and surgery last time. How could it be back? This is why people shouldn’t do chemo.”
 
“Do you think it was a waste to do chemo last time?”
 
“Everything happens for a reason. It’s all part of a larger plan.”
 “Well, you’ve been needing a vacation for a while and now (during chemo) you get    to lie around and read books all day. What could be better?”
Actually, anything would be better.
 

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