What to say to somebody with cancer.

I had a doll order, actually last week but I only happened by chance to notice it.  Orders come into a special place in my inbox.  As there have been none for a year I stopped checking, if you do make an order please email me to tell me to look, as regular readers know, I’ve had other things to think about recently.  I have asked the S&H, who is also the webmaster, if he will redo the shop because the system I previously used for getting pictures of dolls up there, was based around the moves necessary to use the free zoom tool which has since been discontinued.  As it took about 14 actions to get each picture into the shop, this is not so bad, moreover most devices have their own magnification abilities now anyway.  I do need to get some of the new dolls into the shop, 24th scale is having a bit of a resurgence and I’m well aware that not that many people are making in that scale, so watch this space.  I’ve asked the S&H if he’ll do it as my birthday present, with a bit of luck and a following wind it will happen before I’m much older.  Maybe.

Meanwhile the collector who ordered the doll emailed to say she had wanted to write but didn’t know what to say.

This is a common problem.  As we get better at medical matters and the world population is longer lived, healthier and serviced by various agencies and health professionals, we may live right into our adult lives with little contact with disease and diseased people.  As short a time ago as the Victorian era most large families had a family member with a health problem, a physical disability caused by birth trauma or poor nutrition, or a chronic condition for which there was no cure.  My mother often said that the greatest benefit in her lifetime had been the development of antibiotics.  Up to perhaps 70 years ago most people had seen a dead body and in every community there would be someone who knew how to lay out a body.  Dead babies were commonplace and many children did not survive their early years.  That’s the whole of history, up, pretty much to the start of my lifetime.  Currently in the UK only one family in 20 has a child with disability problems.  Whilst that is one family too many it still leaves 19 families who would not have had to face the problem, find out about it or find out what to do.

This has a direct impact collectively on our core knowledge and coping skills.  Not only do we not know what to do for someone with serious health problems, we don’t even know what to say.  When my mother was ill I found the world divided between those who took to the hills and those who did not.  My parents had entertained extensively.  About once a fortnight my mother cooked dinner and a soiree was had for friends.  My father had an extensive wine cellar and my mother was a brilliant cook.  Guests started with sherry or champagne, had a three course meal of the melon in liquor, pheasant in amazing sauce and several veg, possibly a choice of puddings, cheeseboard and coffee or more liquors and chocolate, variety.  So where were all of these guests when my mother became demented?  Two couples and one widow remained in contact until the end.  In her lifetime my mother gave hundreds of dinner parties.

I wrote about this in dementia diaries.  I said that at least people would know what to do if it were cancer.  I wrote that 33 years ago when I had cancer the first time, people crossed the road to avoid having to speak to me because they didn’t know what to say.  Exactly one neighbour knew what to do and kept calling.  I wrote that these days things would be better.

I was wrong.  For many years my hobby has been card making.  I make all my own Christmas cards and keep a box of cards I’ve made for the OH to give to pals at the pub and all my friends get hand made cards for every occasion.  After my hysterectomy, stuck in hospital for 16 days vomiting blood I had two cards.  One went in with me, a friend had sent it to wish me luck.  The OH brought in another that another friend had sent to the house. Both were editors of magazines I had written for long ago.  The second card I clutched like a talisman through the night of the long naso-gastric tubes.  In a horrible world of people wanting to hurt me for no good reason, the card, which had a picture of flowers in a garden, meant everything to me.  When I got home I had a card from my grandchildren, which was lovely.

So what do you say on such a card.  What can you write?  The answer is pretty much anything kind.

You have to consider what else has been said to me and what else has been happening.  People have caused me pain, chopped bits off, threatened me with  torturous treatments of dubious benefit, shoved things down me and in me, starved me, measured everything and put stuff in my veins.  Even last week after my meeting with my special nurse, I reminded her that she had said  I could have further treatment at any time, as I left she said ‘Well yes but it would only be palliative.’  Now you tell me?

So anything you can say that is kind in a phone call or a card or an email or face to face is better than any of that.  You could ask: How are you feeling?  I’m sorry you have been so poorly.  You could say:  I’m thinking of you.  You could say: I’m sending good wishes.  You could say I hope things improve for you.

Almost anything you could say that is honest and kind would be welcome.  I felt so sorry for my mother, isolated and ill and I was angry on her behalf.  There didn’t seem to be anyone to be angry on my behalf.  On Valentines Day the OH said, I haven’t got you a card because we don’t bother with such things now.  I had just had my female bits removed and I then I was rejected by my husband, who won’t give me a valentines day thing unless he gets something in exchange.  Almost anything you can say would be kinder than that.  This morning we got up early for the plumber, who hasn’t come, so he has spent the morning shouting at me because he had to get up at eight o’ clock.  Almost anything you can do would be nicer than that.

If you are not closely connected with the person with the horrible disease you are in a much better position than family members.  You probably won’t be exhausted from hospital visiting, which is a chore and a trial all round.  These days families are allowed to be there for hours and hours, under the mistaken belief that they are just what’s needed to make you feel better.  You can stay from just after lunch until bedtime and some, mostly loud, families did.

If this isn’t you and you aren’t the person paying through the nose for treatment, hospital parking, long term care or anything else then you really have got off scot free. All you have to do is behave like a comic superhero, swoop in with a message of good cheer and swoop off again.  Do not do what my current neighbour did, promise to cook before the event and then never come near.  In fact don’t promise anything.  Just do once you know the person has survived the op, the treatment, whatever.  All you need to do is a card, or a quick phone call if you think the person is well enough to talk, or a message by any other means.  All you really need when you are walking the trackless valley of despair is to know you are not forgotten.  All you need when surrounded by people who apparently wish you ill, and you’re stuck in the machine which will soullessly meet out whatever horror is next, is to know that there is still someone who only wishes you well.

When to do it is like old fashioned advice on writing thank you letters, the more prompt they are the briefer they can be.  If you sent a card and the person died unexpectedly before it arrived it would still be better received than turning your back on suffering.  I did send a get well card to my father-in-law, we then went to see him and the card arrived the following day, after he had died during the night.  But if something had prevented us going, my step-mother-in-law would have known that he was in our thoughts.  It is of importance in the era of selfies and self absorption to give space in your thoughts to another person.

It goes a very long way, just one wish for the good health and good luck of another human being.  Thoughts are things, they have an existence of their own.  Thoughts are prayers and also curses and they all have an effect. I am aware at present and possibly for quite some time that I am emotionally very vulnerable.  It doesn’t take much to hurt me or let the tendrils of fear paralyse me again.  Sending good thoughts and positivity to someone surrounded by decline and negativity, especially someone whose family is being negative or fearful or callous or just sick and tired of being with someone sick and tired, is a great kindness and a light through the dark places.


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