Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Are People Afraid of Me?

I realized something today. People are afraid of people with cancer. And even cancer patients are afraid of other people with worse stages of cancer than they have.

I recently visited a friend in the hospital after her surgery for breast cancer. Let’s call her “Sally”. She and I have another mutual acquaintance from the waiting room of the oncologist we all go to. This mutual acquaintance has metastatic breast cancer -- it’s her second time around and it’s spread to her lungs and a few other organs. This, after having been given the all-clear eight years ago when she was first diagnosed. Despite her dreary prognosis, she’s bright and cheerful and rarely complains about the grueling treatment she’s going through.

I mentioned to Sally that I hadn’t heard from our mutual friend for a while and perhaps I should call her so we could all get together soon. Sally’s response left me speechless. She told me she was afraid of this other lady. We didn’t go into details because although I didn’t share this fear, I immediately knew what she meant.

I understand why non-cancer people are afraid of cancer patients. They don’t know what to say. They feel pity. It’s depressing to be around a sick, dying person. They’re faced with their own mortality.

For cancer patients, the mortality issue hits hardest when looking at other patients in worse condition. It’s hard to watch someone in the last stages of cancer without thinking that someday, you’ll be there too. And if the patient is visibly dying, like the bed-ridden, emaciated, bald cancer patients you see in the movies, it can be scary.

I was never that stereotyped patient when I was going through chemo. I was lucky enough to escape all the side effects (except the baldness). None of my friends stayed away or kept their distance. If anything, my friendships became stronger and more meaningful.

But what if I WERE one of those visibly dying patients, cloistered in bed in a dark room? Would anyone come to visit me then? And even if they did, would they only do it because they felt too guilty not to?

I don’t want to force anyone to face that dilemma -- to spend time with me out of obligation and pity. But really, why else would anyone choose to spend time with a sick, dying, bed-ridden person? I doubt I’ll be cracking jokes or laughing at that stage. Then I wouldn’t be me anymore.

I guess that’s the really frightening thing. Watching someone you care about becoming less and less the person you know and love.

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