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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Having cancer, talking cancer

In one cancer memoir I read, the author is in the exam room after she learns she has breast cancer. She looks at the doctor through her tears and whispers, "I'm sorry. I just don't know how to have cancer." The doctor puts his hand on her shoulder and says, "None of us knows how to have cancer."

It's a humble and humbling claim, one I seek comfort in, both in terms of my own bewilderment over how to cope with cancer in my own life and in the lives of others, as well as the challenge of how to deal with those who mean well but offer little comfort at all. 

How, then, do you have cancer? And how do you talk about it?

On good days when someone makes a comment I disagree with or says something insensitive or just plain wrong, I remind myself that none of us knows how to have cancer. 

On good days I realize a person who makes an inappropriate comment overcame the temptation to say nothing at all, which (theoretically) I appreciate. Rather than ignoring my cancer, this person—however awkwardly—is acknowledging cancer's invasion into my life. 

The problem is not all days are good days. 


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