Daily Archives: March 13, 2012

The Etiquette of Cancer

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“How are you?’

A pleasant way to start a conversation be it on the subway or with a neighbor you run into across the hall. A way to strike up a conversation with someone, you are meeting after a long time. Or sometimes, just a means to fill in the uncomfortable silence, or the lack of anything meaningful to say. It’s an innocent enough question, but one I’ve come to dread.

Here’s the problem. After six months of being in the cancer club, I’m starting to loose track of who I have told and who I haven’t. It’s not that I’ve made any great secret of the fact, quite the opposite. In most respects the more people who know the easier it is for me, but it’s really not that much fun telling people. Particularly people I know and like. I suppose I’ve been a bit lazy and relied on word of mouth. Bad news usually travels pretty fast in my experience.And lets face it, you are a bunch of gossips.

So here’s the thing.

When someone says “How are you?” I’m not sure if they’re really saying:

“Hi, I heard all about the (whispered) ‘you-know-what.’ Dreadful business. How’s the treatment going? How’s the family holding up? Where does it hurt? What’s chemo like? Can I see your scar? How come your hair hasn’t fallen out? Is there anything I can do? etc. etc.”

Or:

“How are you? By the way before you launch into a lengthy and potentially embarrassing answer, can I just point out that this is an entirely rhetorical question, I am blissfully unaware of your current medical predicament, and frankly only ask because it is the socially accepted way to greet someone I haven’t seen for a while. I have no real interest in the minutia of your probably tedious and uneventful life, so why don’t you just say “Mustn’t grumble” and reciprocate by asking about my wife and kids, and where we went for the summer holiday.”

You see the problem?

The potential for awkwardness here is considerable. Do they know or don’t they? Are they just not mentioning the elephant in the room out of politeness, or because the haven’t spotted it yet?

To take the easy way out – “Never been better thanks!” seems disingenuous, and rather goes against the grain. On the other hand just blurting out “Fine thanks. Apart from the small matter of the Stage Four Eosophigal Cancer that could put me in the ground any day now. What ‘you driving these days?” seems crass and rude.

Actually I did say that just the once. I’m not proud of it. It was at a party, and it was to someone who I don’t particularly like, who was drunk and just wouldn’t shut up. So when he finally stopped talking about his tawdry, awful life, took a breath and another swig of his Bacardi Breezer and enquired after mine. I told him straight. It certainly shut him up, but using my disease as a weapon was a low trick. I’ve resolved never to do it again.

So, what to do?

Well I find the pre-emptive strike works well. “Hi! How are YOU?”

“Absolutely bloody terrible. Life is hardly worth living?”

(In a cocerned tone.) “Really? I’m very sorry to hear that. Has one of your major organs failed? Has your homeland been overun with fundamentalist Islamic extremists? Or maybe one of your children has a crack habbit and joined the Mongrel Mob? Don’t tell me you picked up Necrotizing Faciitis from a dirty teaspoon?”

“No but the traffic on the bridge was an absolute bitch. Forty-five minutes to get to the city off-ramp. Some wanker spilt Eco Slim tea or coffee on my Armani shirt, and I’ve lost the key to my locker at the gym.”

“Oh! you poor lamb. I see what you mean. How do you go on? Life can deal us some cruel blows sometimes can’t it? What you need is a nice cup of tea and a lie down.”