Years ago my best friend went through the stillbirth of her son, just before his due date. It was just devastating for all of us who loved that little boy; for we loved him long before he was born and still miss where he would have been in our lives. Many life lessons were learned during that time, and I still believe and know that little guy teaches us things daily.
One of the lessons that stands out is something one of the nurses told her about the things people will say when they heard about what happened with the baby. The nurse told her that people will really mean well, yet will say all kinds of odd things, and awkward things, and things that just are plain off-putting. She said, “Sometimes, people will just open their mouths and a clunker will fall out. And you just have to be nice, and you have to be ready for it.” (I always imagined it as klunker with a “k” though, it sounds klunky-er, so klunker it is.)
During cancer, my girlfriend had to remind me of these wise words again and again when something awkward was said to me about being bald, or about how I got cancer, or about my treatment. Klunkers abound in Breastcancerland…so much so, we might as well call it Klunkerland.
In the last few weeks, I have again been reminded of abundance of klunkers in the world while in conversations with my Pop, who just had pneumonia, and with another friend who had just gone through a tremendously serious illness. After some philosophical going toe to toe with death chat with each of these folks, we got to talking about klunkers; how it is, during and after our illness, people just seem to do nothing more than open their pie hole and a klunker falls out. People can’t just hear what you are going through, or what you went through and let it alone. Oh no, they feel compelled to say something, most often oblivious to the loud klunky sound it made when it fell out, and for sure oblivious to the “OUCH!” you screamed when it fell hard on your psyche.
Klunkers can range from the innocuous to the deeply hurtful. From the ho-hum to the so out there weird that you just stand there in utter awe thinking, “Holy cow, that must have taken a lot of effort to be that stupid.” Klunkers can be singular, or something the same person just keeps coming at us with over and over every time they see us. Personally I think the worst kind of klunkers are ones the people think are hilarious, so much so they say it every time they see you, laughing as if it was first time they are saying it…and it wasn’t even funny the first time.
But one thing is true about klunkers, the people who say them are 99.9% of the time absolutely deaf to the klunk….bless their heart.
After five years of experiential data collection, I have surmised that there are three kinds of potential klunker launchers who emerge in cancer and post cancer conversations; those who take what you say and have to have to knee jerk relate it to themselves with a personal anecdote about someone they knew with cancer, those who have advice which also usually includes a little snippet they think is particularly humorous, and the just plain curious.
Upon hearing that we have or had cancer, many folks like to tell us their cancer story in what I think is an attempt to align themselves with us or identify with us. This is generally is a slow rolling klunker out of their mouth; a sharing of their, (insert echo-y sound effect) “Brush with cancer.” Almost always this brush involves a relative who either died a long slow harrowing death from cancer or who was “opened up and closed up” and died two days later. This serves the purpose for them of saying with their hand on their heart, “I too have been touched by cancer.” Usually, the conversation gets klunkier because it never gets to where they ask how you are doing, it just continues as they become tearful about how the friend of theirs is doing or about how dead they are. I never quite know what to say other than “Oh, my,” when I found myself consoling them despite my current sickly chemo-ness.
Listen up people! We don’t wanna hear your story…honest. I don’t want to identify with someone who cancer took out, sorry for being a snob and all, but shut your pie hole about Aunt Babbie okay?
Other people want to be helpful. By golly, they are just chock full of ideas, helpful hints and unsolicited advice! They want to tell you about especially obscure remedies that, if you don’t read the National Enquirer classified ads, may have eluded you. Tonics and potions that will cure your cancer, and the benefits of acai berry, turkey rhubarb or pine needle acupuncture. They can even assure you that uncovering guilt from your childhood by walking through the woods and eating slippery elm bark will not only cure your cancer, but will protect you from recurrence. These are the people PT Barnum got rich off of. The key thing here making this a klunker is that not only don’t you give a rat’s behind about acai berry, but YOU NEVER EVEN ASKED FOR ADVICE IN THE FIRST PLACE!
And then there are the “hilarious” (insert my 17 year old’s sarcastic dead pan droll when you say it) klunker people who just have something jovial and fun to say when they hear you have cancer. They giggle and put their oh so cute and light spin on cancer, as if to say, “I am so totally comfortable talking about cancer, I can even joke about it!” These are the mother of all klunkers, things like, “Think of the money you will save on shampoo and waxing!” Surely, a homicide has occurred somewhere in the world after a double mastectomy candidate heard for the two hundred and sixteenth time, “At least you get a perky new set of breasts out of it!”
People, trust me, we aren’t always feeling as if we won the lottery when chemo is being done for four weeks rather than ten, or we’re getting “new breasts!” In fact, we would gladly trade our lifetime supply of acai berry tonic for our saggy old ones. Honestly, I think these are the people who are the most uncomfortable with cancer talk, and they just don’t know what to say, it’s like nervous laughter….nervous klunky laughter.
And while I am it, please stop the platitudes. Telling me that God only gives these things to people who can handle them makes me think, “Damn, if I hadn’t been so tough all my life, I wouldn’t have been dealt this hand.”
In Lauren’s World, there would be a law that you can only give advice or tell a story about cancer if you have had cancer. Only cancer folk can cast the first cancer joke.
Enter the curious.
The curious people are indeed my dear Alice, curiouser and curiouser. Truth is, we are a select group of people who fall down the rabbit hole of cancer or serious illness and live to tell about it, and often people’s curiosity about the experience gets the best of them. They really do expect that we lived only to tell about it; and even better, to tell them about it. They wonder and ask, “What it was like to have chemo, to almost die?” They want to know how it felt to have no hair, what stage we were; they want to know how everyone, you, your kids etc… handled it. They want to know as my Pop has been asked of late, if we “saw the light.”
These people are not only just plain curious, they are genetically endowed with the not pleasant combo platter of curiosity and poor personal boundaries. They stand too close to you and your psyche. They are clueless about what an intensely private and horrifying experience cancer was for us; not grasping that we have not sorted it out yet ourselves, and that even when we do, we might not want to share our experience with Ed from accounting. This happened to me last week when I was getting my teeth cleaned. A temp was filling in as a hygienist in the office and she starts digging through my chart and asks, “I see you had cancer?” “Yes,” I said knowing full well the dentist knew this history. “What kind?” she asks, “Breast cancer” I said, pretending to be distracted by the TV. It didn’t stop, I knew it wasn’t gonna stop. “What stage was it?” she nonchalantly asked as she put her mask on, and with that I said, “No offense but this is not something I like to chat about with people I don’t know.” I mean WTF? Perhaps she could use her dental tools to pick the klunker up off the floor instead of to pick through my chart in a HIPPA violating little jaunt. Do I think she meant badly? Not at all. Likely she was trying to make conversation, likely had her own story to share and was just trying to open, along with my mouth the segway to tell her own tale of her (insert echo-y sound effect) brush with cancer. Likely she was curious.
Likely, she won’t be doing that again.
The psychologist in methinks that some of the questions of the curious are simply part of the human condition of wanting to allay fears of death. It makes people feel better to have reassurance that there is a light and that we will find comfort in death. Some people want to know that if serious illness happened to them, it’s doable and not as scary as they imagine.
And yes, some are just freaking nosy.
Some klunkers are just plain mistakes and make us feel worse for the person who said them than we do. Before cancer, I had longish hair, and of course after cancer, I had that oh so attractive, chemo-hair-growing-in-buzz-cut look. I went to work in an office I had not been in a very long time and a social worker walks up and goes, “MAN! Did you hack all your hair off or what!” I still feel mortified for her to this day.
Bless her heart.
If a klunker falls out of someone’s mouth and no one is there to hear it, does it still klunk? Indeed, klunkers don’t always have to be verbal. Sometimes it’s simply an action of another that can just plain hit us totally the wrong way. I currently have this little klunker knocking around in my head with a friend being involved in a breast cancer charity I find honestly to be the mother of all klunkers; offensive and a mental hit every time it’s mentioned. It makes me cry sometimes. Klunkity, klunk, klunk.
And sometimes, the klunker isn’t said to us, but surely gets back to us. Just hearing that others are talking about our illness and saying things at the office like, “Well Marge, Lauren’s just not handling this very well,” klunks. Well duh, I have cancer, how the hell would you be handling it? Oh wait, that’s right, you’d be running around telling everyone, “Yippee! I’m getting perky new breasts!” Klunkers from afar are as toxic as klunkers that fall at your feet. Silent klunkers ditto.
Post cancer treatment klunkers abound as well I think because people never seem to understand that the greater part of grief starts just as we get back to life and figure out how this huge life changing event fits into our jigsaw puzzle. It’s like they tell you don’t go out and buy a new puppy the day your dog dies, the reason being you have grief work to do yet, lots of it, and it’s unfair to hang your happiness on a new dog. It would be like trying to be happy right away about a new set of boobs. (Smile). I kinda got the same response from people after the surprise! divorce. Once the dust had settled and papers were signed and my life was completely cut in half, people were like, “Why aren’t you out there dating and meeting people?” Truth was, I had just started to deal with the emotional end of what happened, I was still bleeding out from the cut. People like to think after cancer treatment, you are cured, you are better; they klunkily say, “You beat it, you are alive! Why are you so quiet and sad-looking?” Klunkers are not only especially wounding at this time, klunkers are particularly prevalent at this time.
Lastly, let’s remember that one man’s klunker is another man’s salve. Sometimes, the very thing that is heard as comfort to us is a harsh klunk to another. I remember when I was first diagnosed, a doctor friend made a comment that my tumor type was, “just garden variety breast cancer.” Honestly, I took great comfort in that statement, that my cancer was relegated to the normal thing they deal with each day and not some turbo cancer, but my dad later told me how offensive he thought that comment was and how he felt it minimized what I was going through.
What do we need to hear? Nothing really, we need you to just be with us, just listen without having to offer a solution or remedy. We need you to treat us like normal, not like superheroes, not with kid gloves. We need you to not be gossiping about our illness with others or asking invasive questions. We don’t need someone to tell us how to fix it or joke about it unless you are sure we will appreciate the joke. We need you to get that we have indeed seen the light, proverbially that is, and will live life a little differently and that’s okay, and we need you to see the light in that your words can injure or heal.
We’ve had cancer. That was wounding enough.
This I know. The world does not revolve around me just because I had cancer, or because I almost died. The world will bump up against us no matter what we have going on in our life and we have to be big girls and handle it. My Pop has always said that when you are faced with an off-putting comment or action, you must back up and look at the intent, and that almost always the intent was good. And I believe that. People want us to feel better, really they do, despite themselves.
So what do we do with klunkers? First girl, you need to learn an elevator speech, one that is doable in the time it takes to go from floor ten to eleven, such as “Hey thanks for asking! Treatment is going well! How are your kids?” or, “What was it like to go through chemo? Great question! It sucked. But can we talk about something else?” Learn to set a boundary, learn to say, “Oh I am so tired of cancer, can we talk about something else?” or, “Hey, I know other people may find that funny, but honest me, not so much okay?”
Or we must get good at having something super eloquent and mature roll off our tongue like, “Frankly my dear, that’s none of your damn beeswax.” This sounds even better if you have a southern drawl like me BTW.
Sometimes, we must just step away from the source. If it klunks when you go like this, then don’t go like this.
I have a friend who when someone says they have cancer, he patly says, “That sucks.” And it’s balanced and true and so unklunky to me.
End of story.
Be sure to share that with Ed in accounting.