After I was diagnosed with CML, people in my neighbourhood would stop and ask me how I was doing. More often than not, they’d say something like, “God wouldn’t give you anything you couldn’t handle”, or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (for the record, at the time, I wasn’t sure that CML wouldn’t kill me), and my all-time favourite, “Everything happens for a reason.”
My brother has a severe form of hemophilia. As a kid, it wasn’t unusual to be woken up in the middle of the night to rush to the emergency room so he could be treated with the blood transfusions that kept him alive.
Fast forward a bunch of years, and I am 12, sitting with my parents at the kitchen table, watching my mother cry as she tells me that he had contracted HIV and hepatitis from tainted blood. The doctors gave him just a few years to live.
Fast-forward another bunch of years. My Dad, a beloved Papa, was diagnosed with dementia. He wasn’t even 60 years old. Watching him deteriorate has broken my heart.
Give me a good reason for any of these devastating situations – I dare you.
So I am not ashamed to admit that when an emergency room doctor told me that I had leukemia six years ago, the last thing on my mind was that “everything happens for a reason.” As I waited for him to discharge me, the light in the room suddenly seemed so bright it was blinding. I couldn’t breathe. Driving home with my husband Kevin we were quiet, our minds reeling with what this news meant for our family.
I spent that night lying with my children, listening to them breathe, and smelling their hair. I wondered if I’d see them grow up. I wondered how much time I had. Once more, my life was in crisis.
When I walked into the Odette Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, the sight of hundreds of people with cancer took my breath away. There were large digital numbers hanging from the ceiling to let people know when it was their turn for chemo or radiation. “You have to take a number?” I asked Kevin incredulously. No “reason” could ever justify the struggle I saw that day.
I soon started collecting a list of things you should never say to someone diagnosed with cancer. Here are my top three (after the ones above):
1. You look like you are losing weight.
2. You look like you have gained weight (never a good idea).
3. At least you are alive.
Believe it or not, the list of ridiculous and unhelpful things that people have said to me since my diagnosis has continued to grow. If you have a story to share, I’d love to hear from you.
In the meantime, for all of you out there who know people with cancer, “I am thinking of you” will do just fine.