The Icky “C” Word

You get the phone call from your dad. Remembering he had a slew of tests and scans scheduled, you wait anxiously on the line for his summary of the results. Cancer… and it’s spreading. Your stomach sinks and your throat tightens. Cancer has infected just about every household, yet that fact isn’t much consolation for a father in the throes of the disease. With each diagnosis it becomes less shocking and each prognosis numbs you a little more.

The world talks about cancer. They talk about the chemicals that might cause it or the foods that might prevent it. They talk about state of the art treatments and billion dollar drugs. They talk about quality of life or the lack there of. They talk about the brave fighters and the mighty battles. What they don’t talk about are the details that make the disease so debilitating.

For a man who loves to eat, losing his taste is more traumatizing than losing his hair. His good days are no longer defined by accomplishments but by the severity of his nausea and whether or not he will enjoy his dinner. His portion sizes shrink along with his waistline.

For a vibrant woman, being called a warrior is motivating and frustrating all at once. She’s said to be an inspiration to friends and family, but their actions contradict those heartfelt words. They put her on a shelf and label her with a sign that reads, “Breakable. Don’t touch.”

For a married couple, sitting in the back of the church after 30+ years up front is hindering. The congregation understands the marriage veterans want to avoid causing a distraction if, by chance, discomfort and pain set in before the service is over. Even with that understanding, both man and wife feel sentenced to that back pew.   

For the school-aged child, temporarily drawing some extra attention from his classmates is tolerable and somewhat exciting. Turning into a show-and-tell topic, the teachers tip-toe around the subject and warn students not to get too close. Their germs might make him sick. He tolerates this new kind of isolation.

With all the admirable fundraising and social awareness events out there, much of the stigma attached to cancer has disappeared. The world is no longer afraid to talk about cancer. The problem is the conversations minimize the individual's experience. It makes us uncomfortable to think about cancer beyond the statistics, miracle drugs, and bald heads, so we stick to the standards. We recite lofty quotes about their battle intentionally forgetting the blood, sweat, and tears. We mask our uncomfortable feelings instead of candidly facing reality. Cancer changes people and it changes families.