I love it when people suggest column ideas.
I was walking through the chemo suite recently and a person called me over and said, "I wish you would write a column to tell people not to give me that look."
"What look?" I asked. "The pity puss." (At first I thought she said "platypus," which I faintly recalled as being a weird-looking animal. I wondered why on earth people were making platypus faces at her.)
Noting my momentary confusion, she continued, "Pity puss. Once I was diagnosed with cancer, people started looking at me as though I was a completely different person."
I knew the look she was referring to. When I was diagnosed, people would look at me with solemn expressions and tilted heads as if they were looking deep into my soul. That look was always unsettling, especially when I was trying to eat lunch.
I decided to play investigative reporter by asking other people with cancer if they've seen that look.
One woman told me that she knows the look, but it doesn't bother her because she knows it's coming from a place of caring. "Of course we have an ideal list of things we want people to say or do, but cancer is emotionally loaded and scary. The solemn faces, teary eyeballs and spiels about being brave are not perfect gestures, but they show concern."
Another told me that she also knows the look, but what bothers her even more is the non-look. "Some people who used to make eye contact with me when saying 'good morning' now avert their eyes and hurry away, fearing that a conversation might take place."
Once you've had cancer, you don't give "that look" when meeting someone else with cancer. One nurse told me, "It's like you guys with cancer have your own secret society." She's right. That's why spending time with others with cancer can be relaxing because cancer isn't an elephant in the room.
I'm afraid that I may be making readers so paranoid of making the wrong face or saying the wrong thing that their heads might explode when encountering someone with cancer. Don't worry. What's in your heart is far more important than what you say or the expression on your face.
The most important lesson is to remember that your friend who now has cancer is the same person she was before she had cancer.
If you're not sure what to say when you first talk with her after she's been diagnosed, try, "I'm so sorry." It's simple, honest and so human.
Bob is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appear regularly in a series called "Cancer Connections" in the Ithaca Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal
Original Publication Date: February 18, 2011