How NOT to get strangled by a cancer patient (or by one of their loved ones with the strength to do so)...

I almost had to get ghetto on a few people in the waiting room of the cancer center while accompanying Mom to her treatment appointment today. Now ordinarily when it comes to visits to the cancer centers, I am a perfect angel: opening doors, offering to help out in the clinic (they never take me up on it even though I am more than capable of taking vitals and turning over rooms so people can lay down and get the H out of there in a timely fashion), patiently waiting (-ish....see previous aside), fetching water and snacks for those without a buddy, etc. However, there are some people (cancer patients included, believe it or not) who don't seem to understand what will and will not make a person suffering from this disease (or someone supporting one with this disease) lose their effing minds. I'm talking circus-freak crazy, going postal, los-ing my mind.

But then I realized that not all people suffer from this disease the same way. (And thank God for that.) Therefore, not all people really know how to act around someone who clearly isn't having a good day (i.e. curled up in a ball, brow furrowed in constant unrest, shivering and sweating, looking like a wee bag of bones). Now you'd think some things would be pretty obvious. (CELL PHONES SHOULD BE BANNED FROM ALL HOSPITALS, CLINICS, MEDICAL OFFICES. PERIOD.) But others are less obvious.

And so it occurred to me that this might be a good opportunity for me to share a few of the things that I've picked up over the past few years during Mom's battle that may come in handy. We're all touched by this disease in some way, and you never know when having a little insight might spare someone battling cancer from even a moment of additional discomfort.

(In no particular order...)

1. Hold the onions. If you are eating around someone going through chemo (this includes cancer center waiting rooms, for Pete's sake), please be mindful of smells. Cancer patients are usually battling nausea and upset stomachs 24/7, and the slightest smell can set off a very unpleasant bout that can last long after your hoagie. And yes, I'm asking you to alter your life for that of another. You can eat a fistful of onions when you get home to your well-ventilated kitchen. There's a time and a place...that's yours.
2. Old lady, put down the eau de parfum. For the love. In line with the smell issue, perfumes and colognes can bring on the nausea and epic headaches like no other. I mean, this is irritating when you're perfectly healthy. Why would you roll around in flower-scented oil before you go to a medical clinic? The doctors don't care...but everyone else around you certainly will. It is good practice to avoid perfume for a job interview, and I would advise the same for any medical setting, particularly if heavily populated with cancer patients. (When in doubt, don't.)
3. 'Maybe she's punk.' No. If you see someone walking around with a bald head (or they are clearly bald beneath their scarf, cap, sassy wig), it's OK to acknowledge that they're probably dealing with cancer. Once Mom got over her first round of cancer and had her adorable little curls back, she was forever stopping bald ladies in the grocery store and asking how they were. I know most of you are thinking, 'Gah! Stranger Danger. With cancer. Scariest thing ever.' But without exception, the stranger really appreciated Mom checking in and asking how they were. I think it was therapeutic in a way from Mom, too. But even if you're not in the club and haven't personally dealt with cancer, it's cool to be frank about the situation and not play dumb when it comes to their shiny little dome. Just remember that it's not about you. If you want to say, "Hello," do so because you care about that person, stranger or not, and not because you want to do a good deed.
4. Mmmmm...Jello. Many chemo drugs have the very unpleasant side effect of changing the patient's taste buds. Sucky, right? Adjustments can be made and stockpiles of "safe" foods become common. However, there is no easy way to tell your super sweet neighbors (hypothetical...I don't even know if we have neighbors out here in the sticks) that their homemade chicken casserole tastes like it has been infused with Costco-sized salt licks. I mean, I like salty snacks, but that's just not cool. And the sad part? The dish probably isn't salted at all. Obdurate reality has little impact on the perception of tastes, smells, sounds, etc. when you're going through chemo. It's all subject to suck, and that is subject to change day by day. So, if you are providing meals or snackage for someone going through chemo, don't hesitate to ask what they can eat and/or what sounds good. And know that by the time you get it to them, that all could have changed.
5. Does this look like effing social hour? On a good day, there is nothing better than having those eager guests come by for a visit, catching up with friends, and having some belly laughs (that hopefully won't lead to a coughing fit). However, on bad days (or even so-so days), the best thing you can do is leave him/her alone. When someone is going through cancer (and/or chemo), there is nothing better than to know that someone is available 24/7...in the other room. It's OK to be pleasant and not treat the home like a mortuary, but short of that, don't bust out the balloon animals and try to elicit smiles and laughs from your friend/family member. If you can't handle the fact that it is not going to be an uplifting visit, keep your happy ass at home. Simple as that. Again, it's not about you.
6. It ain't always sunshine and rainbows, kids. No matter how close you are to someone who has gone through this, you still cannot possibly understand all the havoc this disease wrecks on a person's mind/body/psyche/soul. Having said that, please remember that we could all use a little grace here and there. If someone you know is dealing with cancer and they seem unpleasant, short, or distanced, let them be. It's not about you. Their universe as they know it sucks. Every second. And they are dealing with pressures and pains that I pray you never have to know. So give them a less-than-pretty moment. Or two. Or twelve. But don't ever stop loving them.

I hope that helps y'all get a better grasp on how you can make things a little more bearable for someone dealing with cancer. I am sure there are a dozen things I've forgotten, and some people dealing with this disease may not have the same complaints that I've outlined here, but that's what I can offer on behalf of our battle.

I know we've all dealt with this in some capacity, so please feel free to add your suggestions, tips, insights, etc.


  1. I think that as a general rule in hospitals...i take that back, as a general rule in PUBLIC, kids should be kept on a leash. I know kids are curious and you have to let them explore to some extent, but there a certain line that is crossed when a kid is jumping on the chair next to you smacking you in the face with a toy.

  2. Yes please, see above. I think it would be awesome if everyone would decide to live by one simple rule: Don't be an asshole.

  3. Seriously! You know, we didn't have kiddie restraints when I was a kid, and I NEVER behaved the way this new crop of gene's does. It's disgusting- start parenting!
    Also, the perfume note should be taken for life, not just in hospitals. Spray and walk through ladies!
    PS- no perfume on job interview? What the french?