Women's Cancer Scripts
a field guide to the
wildlife of cancer
When you are diagnosed with cancer, strange
things happen to other people.
Cancer will probably change you, but it also
changes people around you, people you thought you knew.
People behave in
unexpected ways. Some you thought were friends disappear. Others hang around.
And of those who keep coming around, you will be glad to see some, and less glad
to see others.
You will find out who your friends are, as the saying
goes. As if that's a good thing. As if anyone ever really wants to find out who
can be counted on and who can't. Someone you rarely saw and didn't feel
particularly close to may turn out to be the person who is most supportive, who
most understands what you are going through.
Although each person's
cancer experience is unique, there are some commonalities. The following is a
guide to the creatures you may encounter.
are anxious to give you advice and information.
They are convinced that
they know what is best for you, and they go out of their way to share their
They bring you books and tapes, herbs and pills, or they know
where you can send money - usually a lot of money - to obtain a product that is
guaranteed to cure you. This guarantee, on closer examination, turns out to be
more like a strong opinion.
So they will assure you that vegetarians
don't get cancer, or mediators don't get cancer, or those who think happy
thoughts. None of which is true.
They bring you tofu and sprouts when
you really want a pizza, and then you feel guilty for eating pizza at all.
They insist that you think positive, at a time when you are bald and
nauseated and have a temperature of 104 and a major body part is missing.
Preachers are usually well meaning and sincerely concerned for your
welfare, so they are hard to ignore.
They are convinced that the one
thing they promote is the thing that will cure your cancer, if you only do it
correctly. This last part is the kicker - if it doesn't work, you must not be
doing it right.
The clueless make inane comments. These
comments usually fall into one of three categories:
Cancer is not really
a problem. (e.g., Losing your hair/body part/health is not really a problem.)
Cancer is really a blessing. (You'll find out who your friends are. Cancer
is a gift from God because you are so strong.)
You caused your cancer
(Remember that time you had a negative thought? You are not praying hard
There are an infinite variety of idiotic remarks. When you have
cancer you are liable to hear one or two that are amazingly thoughtless.
If preachers are honestly concerned for your welfare, the clueless are
primarily concerned about themselves. They want you to be cheerful because it
makes them more comfortable (this includes some health care personnel).
Those who deny their own sadness and grief do not want to hear about
The clueless want to believe that the world makes sense that it
is fair and just, that people get what they deserve. They are willing to ignore
any evidence to the contrary.
They don't really understand your
situation; they cannot see your illness from your perspective. They are not
interested enough to understand, or they are too fearful of their own well
But their ignorance is not your problem. Education of the
clueless is extremely time-consuming and frequently doomed. It should be
undertaken only in desperate circumstances, or out of sheer boredom.
These people are exhausting. You may have to decide whether their
company is worth the emotional cost, as you are likely to end up taking care of
Bolters disappear when you are diagnosed with
The bolter is someone who was always around before you had
cancer, but now does not call and does not show up. Bolters may or may not send
a card before they leave.
When questioned, bolters make excuses: they
knew you were tired, or they knew you would ask if you needed anything, thus
blaming their absence on you.
Like the clueless, their distance reflects
their own discomfort. They stay away because they are afraid of their own
sadness or their own mortality.
A related creature is the virtual
bolter. Virtual bolters may be physically present but act as if you were no
longer there. They ignore you, as if you were invisible.
yourself not invited to events, as if you didn't exist. You are suddenly
excluded from a weekly meeting you have attended for years.
clueless, bolters are generally resistant to logic and are thought to be
incurable. When they are caught and questioned they blame others, and it may be
best to simply let them go.
Angels know what to do, and
they know what you need. They drop by with a bag of groceries or they offer to
walk the dog.
They will listen when you need to talk, or they can just
sit next to you and be there without having to do anything or say anything. They
know that just being there is doing something.
Angels tread lightly
because they have no agenda of their own. They treat you like the person you
always were. They know that despite the cancer you are still you.
Sometimes angels just know what you need, and sometimes they need to
ask. An angel knows how to listen to the answer, how to listen to what you say
and to what you're not saying.
You can cry with angels and you can laugh
with them, sometimes both at the same time.
Some are born angels. Others
have to learn, which takes time and may be awkward at first.
For fellow travellers, your cancer journey is their journey.
Family members become fellow travellers out of necessity. Others stick
with you by choice.
When you have cancer, they have it too. And in some
ways their journey is harder, a time of frustration and powerlessness. While you
can fight the cancer, they can only observe.
Fellow travellers want to
be supportive, although at first they may not know how. They can become angels
but it will take time. Most of us are not good listeners, and it takes a while
You can help by being patient and by asking for what you need.
The clueless are right about one thing - there are good things about
having cancer. The best is the opportunity for a closer relationship with those
who care about you. And, of course, you learn who your friends are.
is a UK site which
offers all kinds
of support for people
with breast cancer
including a very
good support board.
Women with breast
cancer and their
families may find
this site helpful
for emotional support.
Cancer Support Board.
This is a
U.K. site but has
several U.S members
and welcomes people
Copyright ? 2002 Karen Ritchie M.D.
from Angels and Bolters:
Women's Cancer Scripts
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