What to Say to Someone with Cancer

Jennifer and Dudley Killam in the gardens.

Hello, and Happy 2015 to all of you!

In case you missed my last article, I am Jennifer, a 60-year old Mom, and a retired Air Force Major. It’s been a year since I found out about my cancer. Waldo is my pet name for the beast, otherwise known as Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia. It’s a very rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that I can barely spell. I found out Waldo was the cause all my symptoms, of all the things that were going on with me, and all that was happening to my body.

There’s No Beauty in Cancer

I was asked recently if I could name or remember something about Waldo that was a beautiful, or a wonderful experience. I thought – “You’re kidding, right?”  I wish I could say that cancer was a gift. If it were, I’d return it.

I wish that it had left me with some beautiful memories, to inspire other people. But it hasn’t. There is nothing beautiful about cancer. I am tired due to anemia, and sometimes I just go to sleep for hours. If truth is beauty, then the truth is that having cancer stinks. That doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty elsewhere.

I think sometimes people believe that -- because I look fairly good on some days -- I am really beating this disease, and that I will go on as though nothing has happened.

I can’t.

People do mean well, I know, but people can also say some pretty silly things to those of us who are facing a serious, life-threatening illness.

Don’t Feed the Beast

Here is some advice, with a bit of humor mixed in, for talking to people like me, who have rare cancers -- or any serious life-threatening illness, for that matter.

Please do not call, come over, or write me to ask what my prognosis is. Do not ask about my prognosis, or you may find yourself with far fewer days than you had counted on -- after I strangle you.

Not only is it a disturbing question, but it’s also a somewhat peculiar one, in the big picture. The only one who knows my outcome is God – who I still believe in, though most of the time I ask, “C’mon God – can I just catch a break?” 

Please do not email me saying that my “devastating” illness is impairing your life. I doubt it. I once heard that you could look at your hand to count how many real friends you have. I have to say, in a certain way, this is true with cancer. Whether it’s losing a job, getting divorced, or having cancer, really… how many people actually come to your aid?

In my case, I have some good pals who have known me for over 30 years… and they still like me! I have my family, my sister, and some cousins. But, when it comes to Waldo, and people outside of my close circle, often I feel like I am here to row my own boat. 

Everyone Needs a Dudley

My husband, Dudley, has been my caregiver, provider, “moat dragon,” and most of all, friend. I suggest everyone needs a “Dudley” in life.

I would also like to say that I am grateful for my kind husband, who really went to work to find the best place for me to go for treatment.

I wish I could say I completely cured and feel grand. Though I am on Imbruvica, a new FDA-approved drug for my lymphoma, I have had good and bad days. Some days I look fine, feel great. But I do have fatigue and continuous pain in my left hand.

I wish I could say my cancer numbers show great improvement and, although they originally showed great promise, the effect now appears to have plateaued. I go back again this week, so will find out what else the doctor can do for me. There are many other ways to deal with Waldo and I will try all I can to get better. I do hope to keep getting better, and if this particular drug can’t help me, I will go to another.

Laugh When You Can

Some people have asked if I will ever be in remission. I do not believe my disease has a remission. I may have good days and bad days, but I will always have Waldo with me. 

I have kept up my sense of humor, not for my own sake, or even your sake, but because it’s how I see things. If it’s funny, I have to say it. I do try not to hurt people’s feelings – and I do try to pick the right moments. It’s not always possible, but I do try.

Remember, Dog is God Spelled Backwards

I have Rusty, a Pomeranian who is only 10 lbs, but he doesn't know it. I can’t resist petting any dog or cat, even a Doberman or Pit Bull--and most of them are much nicer than my Rusty. He is actually the ruler of all my dogs. 

I also have a white German shepherd who is smarter than my family and an American Eskimo, Tina, who is very kind and sweet. Unfortunately, we just discovered that she has bladder cancer. This is one of those times when I say, “OK, God, really?  Did my dog have to get cancer too?”  At any rate, I say dogs and cats are really fantastic when it comes to any illness. If you don’t have any, feel free to borrow some of mine!

And, not to exile any cat lovers out there, you should know I also have four cats, but I promise I am not an animal hoarder. I live in a huge house, and all my animals have their spaces. I used to rescue cats with a 90-year-old nun, Sister Josephine, who became my best friend, in fact, but I'll save that story for a different time.

There’s Still Beauty in Life

As for my post-cancer appearance, I look the same. I did not lose my hair…but that’s because it’s too thin anyway. I did not lose 50 pounds… same as always! But I can say that apparently my type of cancer is very picky in what it chooses to attack. I do have a sore hand, which I cannot use at all – (and it is not even my tennis hand, but the left hand!).

I’d like to thank my sister, Susie, who is always there to pick me up and laugh with me. I also thank my late sister, Patti, who taught me about bravery in the face of one’s own mortality.

If you know someone who is sick or has cancer, don’t ask what you can do. Just drop off a card, small gift, or food on their porch with love and affection. That gesture is beautiful, one of the only things I can say about cancer that is... beautiful. I do hope 2015 will bring sunshine in my life and yours. Thanks for listening!

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