Don't be an asshole to people who have sick family members.
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When I was 21, I was attending college at Montana State University. At the time, I was going through that exciting life moment when you think you have it all, even though you’re living on something like $300 a month. But this was before I was told dad has throat cancer.
In many ways, though, I did have it all. I had a little house I loved, I adored my roommates, and my friend group was massive. They were always showing up for a barbeque, heading to some university event, or going downtown to what we knew back then as the “Bermuda Triangle” – three bars arranged in a triangle on a single city block. As school started up again, I even met a boy I liked.
It felt like a freight train had run directly into my life at full speed. I’ll never forget waking up every day and feeling like nobody quite understood what I was going through.
Dad has throat cancer: the diagnosis
Like most cancer diagnoses, it came as a surprise. My dad initially had no idea he had throat cancer. He found out about it after making a routine visit to the ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) due to his persistently dry throat.
However, rather than give him medication or antibiotics to take care of a minor infection, the ENT Specialist gave my dad the shocking news that one of his vocal cords wasn’t functioning. This meant there was a very high chance that what he was experiencing were actually the symptoms of throat cancer. The ENT referred him to a specialist, who did a biopsy and made a diagnosis.
Within a week, my father was undergoing a battery of tests. The biopsy came back as malignant, stage III. He was referred to another hospital, where he underwent PET-CT scans, MRIs, and other tests to figure out whether the cancer was in the bone or not.
The good news was that these tests came back negative. The bad news, of course, was that it was still cancer. While everyone assured us that the surgery would be relatively simple, nobody slept for weeks.
What not to say when someone’s dad has throat cancer
The first time I told someone about my dad’s cancer, it was the girl who lived in the downstairs apartment of our split-level home. I had been on the phone with my mom and was crying. Not minutes after I hung up, my neighbor knocked on the door and let herself in, armed with a stack of mail and a few questions about bills. She took one look at me and gasped.
Immediately embarrassed, I tried to explain myself. I was worried she’d think I was trivial or silly for crying that hard, so I said, “My dad has cancer. He was just diagnosed.”
She recoiled a bit. It almost wasn’t visible, but I saw it. “Cancer?” she said, “What kind?” I told her what I knew about his diagnosis and his prognosis, which was good. She shook her head, gave me a side hug and left.
“Whoof,” I thought. “Now it’s out there.”
While my neighbor reacted gently and compassionately, something about telling her made it suddenly real in the world. I wasn’t just a 20-something college student anymore. I was the girl whose dad had cancer. Today, I still think back on the odd sense of embarrassment I felt telling her – the sense of being entirely exposed and vulnerable and just hoping for the best from the person on the other end of the conversation.
Over the next few weeks, I delved into the process of telling my other friends, and the reactions were mixed. Given that 12.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the U.S. alone, a lot of my friends and classmates knew someone who had battled the disease. Needless to say, they reacted the best.
They knew what it felt like to be out of control and a little embarrassed about the reality. My friends were gentle and compassionate. There were other people, though – people I loved deeply – who didn’t react so well. One particularly brash girl I knew slapped her knee and explained how cancer treatments would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years. “Enough to bankrupt them, probably,” she said.
What I learned from my dad’s throat cancer
What I learned from that experience is this: there’s no way to ever know what is going on in someone else’s heart and mind, or how hard someone is taking something you might wrongly view as trivial or tied up in a bow. While I needed understanding and validation, I got more than enough judgment and insensitivity. The takeaway for me was obvious: don’t be an asshole to people who have sick family members. Even if you can’t think of the right words, just say something like, “That must be so hard.”
Today, my dad is in full remission and doing just fine. Our family was lucky, but I still carry that lesson in compassion and understanding around with me everywhere I go.
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