The Cancer Conversation

Nice Reception people at DICE in Stockholm

Hello.  How may I inadvertently devastate you today?

There’s no easy way to tell someone your seven year old boy has cancer.  It’s true that having a son with cancer is the worst thing I’ve ever had to endure.  I’ve had several experiences of feeling like my world has been suddenly restructured, and this has been the biggest. But it’s also true that, all things considered, his treatment is going pretty well. He has to go through a lot, and I feel bad for this interruption of his childhood, but I feel pretty positive about the outcome.  His cancer went into remission early on and hasn’t shown any sign of coming back; we’re dealing more with controlling the side effects of the chemotherapy. In short, this all sucks, but we’re used to it.

But having the cancer conversation is hard. Casual conversation can be a minefield.  A simple “How was your summer?” and I think do you really want to know?

I had one such conversation the other day.  I had to reschedule my doctor’s appointment because my son’s chemotherapy session got moved.  I’ve switched to Adderall recently for my ADHD, and I have less of a filter and things come flying out of my mouth.  The receptionist asked me “what are good times and days for you?”

I didn’t know how much to explain.  I’m on family leave right now, so I’m not working.  But my son’s treatment varies.  I ended up saying, “I’m pretty flexible.”  Then, in my filter-challenged state, I added, “My son’s chemotherapy got moved, that’s why I had to change the appointment.”  Shit.

Not that I don’t want to talk about it, but I don’t want to devastate someone in a casual conversation.  Which I just did.

She said, “Oh, that’s terrible!  When was he diagnosed?  I’m so sorry to hear that.” And so on.  Which are all sensitive and appropriate responses.  I mean, someone could say, “At least you’re saving money on haircuts!”

But I ended up, as I often do, consoling the other person.  “He’s responding very well, and he’s doing fine right now.”

The cancer thing slipped out not just because I had the Adderall talkiness going (which is why I could make a phone call in the first place) but also that I always feel the need to justify myself, even when the other person doesn’t care.  It took me a long time to realize that if I forget to pay a credit card bill or something and I call up the company, the person who answers the phone doesn’t feel personally offended that I didn’t pay the bill, and probably would be more offended to listen to my litany of excuses.

But I still feel like if I have to move an appointment, even for a justifiable reason, that I have to make that reason known because otherwise someone will think badly of me.  If I drill down far enough, I think I explain excuses to show that I am a good person because I often feel I am not.  Through years of coming up short and having no real excuse (that I understood) I perfected the art of excuse making.  Having a child with cancer is the ultimate excuse card.  I regret when I use it that way.  But of my many personality quirks, a big one is that it is deeply uncomfortable to have someone think poorly of me.  I don’t take criticism well (ask my wife) and put off things that involve facing criticism (ask my publication record) or apologizing for my faults. In fact, the thing that angers me the most is unfair criticism because, goddammit, there are plenty of justifiable things to criticize me for!

Ahem.

Anyway, the conversations I’ve had have actually gone pretty well.  People have been remarkably sensitive and generous.  The only insensitivities have been the non-conversations, the people who pretend not to see me in the grocery store because they know and don’t want to get all serious life-and-death-y in the middle of picking out some apples.  Or the parents and kids at school who stare. My son seems to have no self-consciousness in that regard; he doesn’t want anything to do with a hat. For me, the best thing to do in that situation is to just be routine.  Yep, picking up my son at school, same as you, boring old routine.

It also gets a little weird at the local hospital.  We have a setup where if Alec just needs a blood test, we don’t have to drive all the way down to the clinic for that and can do it at the hospital down the street.  There’s no oncology clinic at our local hospital, so there are no bald children running around everywhere like in our usual setting.  Lots of people stare with pity in their eyes.  By contrast, the clinic is one of the best places to hang out because, while there are some kids suffering through bad times there, there are also lots of bald kids just hanging out doing normal kid stuff, and you can just chat with parents without it being a minefield.

The best group (besides people in the oncology clinic) has been my poetry writing group. Everyone’s been through hard times and we just address it in our work and our conversation.  There’s a sort of directness there that makes it easy.  We’re not all that concerned with politeness, though everyone there is kind.  It just goes with the nature of the work.

So if you see me, you can have the conversation with me. Like I said, we’re used to it.  There’s no avoiding the cancer in our house when we have to give him medicine daily and take him in to the clinic at least once a week. It’s our new normal.

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