My boyfriend and I always stop at Starbucks on our way to chemo. It’s our pre-game ritual. The second time we stopped in, four months and 11 rounds of chemo ago, I ran into a casual acquaintance, the friend of a friend. She’d heard about my breast cancer diagnosis through the grapevine and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically.
“I’m on my way to chemo now!” I said, maybe a note too jauntily, raising my latte in a half-toast.
Her face fell. “Oh Jess, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you had to do chemo. Are you going to make it?”
I started to rattle off minutiae about traffic. Then I realized what she was saying to me. She wasn’t asking me if I was going to make it to my chemo appointment on time during rush hour. Right there in front of the Oprah Chai tea display, she was asking me if I was going to die.
For a split second, I envisioned body-slamming the cream and sugar kiosk, Mary Katherine Gallagher-style to extract myself from the conversation. Instead I stammered, mentally editing the angry retort ringing out in my head, searching for something polite to say. Something other than: “I fucking hope so, you stupid beeyatch!”
Before I could respond, she asked: “Are you going it alone? Do you have any support?”
I sipped my latte and said, “Nope, I’m a real-life Eleanor Rigby. I’m gonna die any minute now, alone. Thanks for reminding me, Einstein.”
Really, I didn’t say any of that. Not out loud, anyway. In reality, I mumbled something about my boyfriend, who was waiting for me in the parking lot, and something about my prognosis looking good. Then I made a hasty exit to go choke back angry tears in my car. This woman, with her advanced degrees and fancy job, was not a stupid beeyatch. But asking me if I’m gonna make it? In a coffee shop?
I can’t even ask my doctors if I’m going to make it without them tilting their heads to the side, the physician’s version of a wince. They remind me of all the factors I have going for me, and that I’m being aggressive with my triple-whammy approach—a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation. But they never tell me whether my cancer will kill me because there are no guarantees either way. I’m no more informed about when my number will be up than I was before my diagnosis.
I don’t know what she was thinking. Who knows what goes through anyone’s head at Starbucks during rush hour. Maybe she’s cancer-illiterate, and assumed chemo is only a last gasp effort in terminal cases. Or maybe it was my chemo crew cut. I thought it was hip, but to her I might have looked like I was knocking on heaven’s door. Most people are going to deal with some form of cancer in their lifetime, so statistically speaking I could have asked her the same question: Are you gonna make it? But I didn’t because she meant well, bless her heart.
Bless everybody’s hearts, really. Nobody knows what to say—it’s cancer. I remember being a foreigner in this land, tongue-tied and deeply afraid. My sister-in-law is a two-time survivor and in all the years I’ve known her, I wonder if I’ve ever said anything remotely intelligent to her about it. Before my diagnosis I couldn’t even bring myself to buy my favorite glossy magazines during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The mere idea of turning the pages knowing those pink ad spreads were lying in wait scared me too much. I shudder to think of the stupid things I’ve probably said to her while quaking in my boots.
We’re all related to this disease, but it doesn’t make talking about it any easier. Plus there’s the little matter of how we’ve become a culture of habitual blurters, tweeting every little thing on our minds, broadcasting our expert opinions 24/7. We let words careen off our tongues and keyboards, too often forgetting we might be lobbing dirty bombs over the fence. Factor in a nasty disease, and every last one of us is a potential idiot.
My close friends have practically tripped over themselves to be sensitive. But sometimes I think that just outside my circle of friends there’s a zombie horde of well-intentioned acquaintances waiting to take me down with freaky anecdotes and intrusive medical questions. One wrong move, and I’ll hear some version of: “Be careful, the cancer came back in the uterus/brain/toenail of my friend/roommate/neighbor.” Or my least favorite—and more common than you’d think—hybrid question that is somehow both too personal AND insulting: “Do you think your weight has anything to do with the cancer?”
I’ve been told cancers come in threes, and I’ll almost certainly have a recurrence because I’ve never had children. I’ve been told I’ll enjoy the chemo wigs because I had thin hair to begin with. Ouch! Kick me when I’m down! Someone else said I made cancer look good, like she was complimenting me on a new jacket. I’ve been emailed articles roughly entitled “Chemo Will Kill You.” And the crème de la crème: I was asked if I thought I’d manifested this cancer as the result of once working for Mitt Romney. That has to be the meanest thing anyone’s ever said about the man.
These were not the remarks of anonymous, hateful trolls. These were the innocent blunders of intelligent people, obliviously paving the road to hell with all their good intentions. Everybody has a grisly cancer story, everybody has questions. I just don’t need to hear them for another six to 6,000 months.
I have two jobs now—one is getting through chemo, and the other is letting the crazy things people say roll off my back. If you ever see me out, I suggest you lead with a simple: “How are you doing?” If empathy had a business card, those four words would be its tagline. It is a simple, timeless classic. And if you ask me how I’m doing, I probably won’t wind up curled in the fetal position crying for my mama. No guarantees though, because that might just be how I’m actually doing.