Last night, a friend asked me how I was doing. “I’m depressed,” I said. “My hair’s falling out and I have writer’s block.”
He squirmed. Evidently, this was not the correct response. “I know this isn’t helpful at all,” he said, “but there are people going through chemo who are much, much sicker than you. It really could be a lot worse.”
I said, “That’s always true.”
The internet contains about a million articles with titles like What Not To Say to Cancer Patients, and “It could be worse” pretty much always makes the cut. The reason for this is fairly self-evident. In some dark corner of the world, a quadruple-amputee 3rd-degree burn victim is hooked up to a ventilator, unable to speak, and only able to think about the slaughter of everyone they ever loved. In addition to horror over the murders and the never-ending torture brought about by their burns, this individual might also be concerned that they are currently experiencing The Worst Thing. The rest of us are bothered by other matters. For example, I, at the moment, am concerned that I am going temporarily bald at 29 and I don’t know how to think of myself if I can’t write (more on that in another post). The fact that things could be worse is irrelevant. I was never worried they couldn’t be.
Now, it’s fairly established and therefore not particularly interesting that people say stupid and unhelpful things like “It could be worse.” What is interesting is why they say it despite knowing how stupid and unhelpful it is, and my guess is it’s because a situation exists that is so distressful that they will resort to saying pretty much anything to alleviate that distress. This situation arises from the following fact:
When people ask how I’m feeling, they’re really asking me to make them feel better about the fact that I have cancer.
This doesn’t apply to everyone, but I have been surprised by how many people it clearly does apply to. What’s worse is that my response to my friend — which barely even involved telling him off — was about as close as I’ve come to calling anyone out on what they’re doing. There are a couple reasons for this.
One, I’m an empath. When someone is distraught and wants me to make them feel better — even if the thing I’m supposed to make them feel better about is my own damn cancer — I’m inclined to help if I can.
Two, established dynamics die hard. In a lot of my friendships, I fall into an advice-giving and comforting role. Hell, it’s a role that I tend to lean into pretty hard, because it comes easily to me and goes well with the whole empath thing. Just because someone who is used to receiving comfort and advice from me calls me up with every intention of now offering said comfort and advice, doesn’t mean things will actually pan out that way.
Three, I’m tired. When people pull the “it could be worse” crap, I feel like crying, not telling them off. And if that happened, I’d fail pretty spectacularly at making them feel better about my cancer.
But here’s another interesting thing I’ve noticed:
Even when no one’s asking me to make them feel better, I’m trying to anyway.
And it’s not just me. It’s the people who are close to me too, like my parents, who are obviously very affected by this. Consider what happened a couple days ago when my hair started falling out.
I was running my fingers through it, making a pile of all the strands. Then, out of nowhere, it occurred to me that this would make a fun picture! Not because I was feeling some rush of cancerly bravery or because it was actually fun — nope, I was thinking about how well a picture like that would play into other people’s ideas of a cancer patient with a brave smile and a fake mustache made of her own fallen-out head hairs:
So I sent that smiling picture to my mom (note how happy I look! Note how good and dark my eyebrows look, the semi-permanent tattoo job now fully healed!). She asked if she could send it to our friends and relatives, and of course I said sure because I knew this was the kind of picture they wanted to see. She sent it, as part of an email series that has included such questionable assertions as “Erica continues to feel fine, with spirits buoyed by your love and support.”
But the fact of the matter is that I don’t feel fine, and my parents are scared and upset and yet we are all working diligently to present a brave front. We are responding to a plea that isn’t articulated but that we nevertheless hear loud and clear: Make us feel better about Erica’s cancer!
Enough with the problem. Do I have a solution? Kind of. Consider this: no one with cancer needs to look to others for reassurance that things could be worse. Believe it. The person spending hours every day reading internet horror stories about treatments and prognoses taking a left turn down the road to hell, the person who spends two to five days a week at doctor’s offices listening to dire warnings and trying not to look too hard at the other patients — this person already has perspective. I get that things could be worse. I get it too well. It’s easy to tell myself that I don’t have it as bad as I could, and I shouldn’t be as upset as I am.
What I’m struggling with is the opposite problem. What’s difficult is giving myself permission to be depressed over my hair and my writing. What’s difficult is not beating myself up for feeling bad.
So be the person who just says, “That sucks.” Don’t tell me about your dying aunt and your friend who couldn’t stop throwing up for a week straight. Be the person who doesn’t want to see my brave and grumpy chemo face:
Be the person who wants to see this instead:
Like what you read? You can check out more at my website, ericajschecter.com