Cancer Etiquette: Dealing with Blundering Well-Wishers

By Suzanne Leigh

The late, “ferociously intelligent” Christopher Hitchens delivered a smart riposte to those well-meaning but woefully misguided cancer well-wishers in “Miss Manners and the Big C,” an article published in 2010 in Vanity Fair. In it, he includes the following “exhausting encounter,” which took place at a book signing of his memoirs, “Hitch 22,” published a year before his death of esophageal cancer:

Customer: I was so sorry to hear you had been ill.

CH: Thank you for saying so.

Customer: A cousin of mine had cancer.

CH: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.

Customer: [As the line of customers lengthens behind her.] Yes, in his liver.

CH: That’s never good.

Customer: But it all went away, after the doctors had told him it was incurable.

CH: Well, that’s what we all want to hear.

Customer: [With those farther back in line now showing signs of impatience.] Yes. But then it came back, much worse than before.

CH: Oh, how dreadful.

Customer: And then he died. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Seemed to take him forever.

CH: [Beginning to search for words.]

Customer: Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual.

CH: [Not quite finding the words, and not wishing to sound stupid by echoing, “of course.”]

Customer: And his whole immediate family disowned him. He died virtually alone.

CH: Well, I hardly know what to …

Customer: Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I understand exactly what you are going through.

I’ve had one or two “exhausting encounters” myself. Perhaps the most memorable was with the 80-something father of a neighbor (who hopefully doesn’t frequent the blogosphere). Natasha and I were in the car about to leave for the the hospital where we had an appointment for craniospinal radiation, following her brain tumor recurrence. (I probably don’t need to say that this was — up until then — by far the most desperate, cortisol-spiking period of our lives.) Here’s how that conversation ensued:


Neighbor’s father: Your left rear light is out … better get that fixed!

Me: Yup … you’re right!

Neighbor’s father: How’s she doing back there? She doesn’t look good.

Me: She’s very tired, right Sweetie? [Turning to Natasha in the backseat.]

Natasha: Uh-huh …

Neighbor’s father: Cancer’s a terrible thing, you know. Terrible.

Me: Yes, it is. Well, I better get …

Neighbor’s father: And brain tumors are the worst.

Me: Yes, they are. Well, I better get …

Neighbor’s father: Did I ever tell you about how my mother died? Her doctor found a  huge  …

Unfortunately for my neighbor’s father, he never got the chance to tell us about his mother, because I backed out of my driveway muttering apologies. But I suspect she died an excruciating death due to a brain tumor or other vicious cancer. (I’m going to assume she didn’t die of a “huge” bunion.)

Why do well-intentioned friends and neighbors (and fans of famous authors) want to share their tales of family members dying of cancer with those of us deep in the trenches of Cancerland? I suspect that it is their way of reaching out and trying to demonstrate empathy, in the same way as when Natasha passed away, people thought it might make me feel less alone to hear about the death of their parent, or grandparent, or dog, or sibling, or friend (no, that isn’t comforting to bereaved parents, although we get that that must have hurt a lot, too).

The other extreme is the well-wisher who wants to share positive stories with you. These can be uplifting, unless of course you are in a place where Hitchens was: diagnosed with a stage IV cancer (“there is no stage V”).

In his article, Hitchens urges “cancer sympathizers” to find out about a patient’s medical status before regaling them with a bright story, such as the one about your grandmother “with terminal melanoma of the G-spot” who underwent “huge doses of chemo and radiation” and the last you heard was a “postcard we had from her at the top of Everest.”

‘Your narrative may fail to grip if you haven’t taken any care to find out how well or badly your audience member is faring or feeling,” he cautions.

Agree with you, Hitch. But those stories with the happy endings, however fantastical and ludicrous they sounded, were always better than enduring the ones about loved ones that died.

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