— When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was a wreck. I tried my best to keep it together, to keep a muzzle on my hyperactive mouth, but inevitably some highly inappropriate comment would come tumbling out.
"Would you like paper or plastic?" a grocery clerk would ask.
"I have breast cancer," I'd answer. "They found three masses and now they're saying the masses are tumors and that I have to have a double mastectomy. I didn't even know how to pronounce mastectomy until this happened! Oh ... uh ... paper would be great."
Euphemisms are us
After a while, though, I didn't have to worry so much about the inappropriate things I was saying because others were coming up with their own questionable cancerspeak.
Don't get me wrong. My friends and family (and even a few kind strangers) have been there for me 100 percent -- bringing by meals and flowers and homemade pies; taking me for walks and checking in to see how my 173 doctors' appointments went that week.
It's just that getting sideswiped by cancer -- not to mention spending all of your time thinking and talking and waiting for test results about cancer -- can make a body oversensitive.
Not to mention testy.
I certainly was the first time somebody made the mistake of wishing me well on my "journey."
My journey? I wanted to yell at them. I've got breast cancer. I'm not going to Acapulco!
But the euphemism seemed to be everywhere -- on the lips of the medical assistants at the doctors' offices, emblazoned in pink across the top of the breast cancer websites.
And cancer wasn't just a journey. It was also a voyage. Or sometimes an adventure (this at least made me feel like I was hacking through a cancer jungle with a machete and pith helmet). Occasionally, someone would assure me that cancer was a gift (show me to the exchange department!).
Others used more military terms. I wasn't a cancer patient, I was a warrior fighting a battle, which of course inevitably brought up the question, "Who's winning?"
"What are your odds?" was a query I quickly grew to hate, not just because it made me feel like I was a horse someone was thinking about betting on -- or not -- but because I didn't have a good answer for it.
Sure, I'd seen the five-year survival rates for invasive lobular carcinoma. And I knew that having chemo and radiation improved those rates.
But in the long run, who knows what's going to happen?
All I know is when you ask someone with cancer what their odds are, the first thing they do is start thinking about those odds, and wondering if and when those odd are going to, well, blow up in their face.
Which I don't believe is the intent of the people who ask this question.
So why the obsession with the most hideous story problem in the world?
(If Diane has three tumors in her two breasts and all are surgically removed, but has cancer in one lymph node and then decides to do chemo and radiation, how long will it take her to arrive in Philadelphia via train? Also, is she gonna die or what?)
"When people ask this, they're responding to the terror that comes from viewing life as a random, uncertain existence," psycho-oncologist Mindy Greenstein told me via phone. "So they want to pigeonhole you. They want to get rid of this business of randomness. Because it's terrifying. It means it can happen to them."
Greenstein, who wrote about her own experience with breast cancer in The House on Crash Corner, also reminded me that cancer doesn't just cause anxiety for the patient, but for everyone around them.
And when people get anxious, bone-headed things come tumbling out of their mouths (present company included).
"It reminds me a little of when I was pregnant," she told me. "I can't tell you how many miscarriage stories I would hear. It was almost like a sitcom."
Caring vs. oversharing
As it happens, I've lived the cancer sitcom, too, which goes a little like this:
"This guy I used to work with had cancer in his prostate and then it went into his testicles and then they found it in his liver and then it went into his lungs and later his kidneys but then he went through chemo and radiation," some well-meaning person will tell me.
"Did the chemo and radiation help?" I'll ask.
"It did at first, but then the cancer came back in his bones and he had to do chemo again."
"But now he's okay?" I'll ask hopefully.
"No, he's dead," they'll tell me. "Take care now!"
Now my gut tells me that these people are passing along stories like this to show me they're paying more attention to cancer, to show me they care. And that's a wonderful thing.
But as someone currently in treatment (not to mention taking a slew of hormone-bending medications), I'd just like to point out that sharing a cancer story that ends badly is right up there with taking a woman who's just had a double mastectomy out to lunch at Hooter's.
Getting it right
There are other things that get under a breast cancer patient's skin.
The blame placers who pull you aside to ask if you've considered whether your cancer came about because of the birth control pills you took or the vitamin D you didn't. The miracle cure folks who assure you that you didn't need to have surgery or chemo at all. Magnets or shark cartilage or yoga or praying or even just "positive thinking" could have gotten rid of those nasty old tumors.
But for every odds-maker or blame placer or rude stranger who lets loose with a "Nice hair!" or "Sucks to be you!" (stinkbomb comments that have actually been lobbed at some of my breast cancer buddies), there are those who keep you humble, who get it just right.
Like the guy who came up to me the other night at my favorite watering hole and asked how I was doing, told me I looked great, then paused for a second before saying:
"You know, every time I see you, you've got a smile on your face. You never complain. You talk about what you're going through, but you don't complain."
I'd say that's my cue to shut up.