“That’s My Cancer Smelling Dog” and Other Things Not to Say

Photo by Gnas

Photo by Gnas

Cancer, it seems, lends itself to awkward conversations. People don’t know what to say to me. Rest assured that I assume we all mean well, even when we say something stupid. If you worry that you might have uttered something that offended me, relax. I bear no grudges. In fact, the more awkward transgressions make me chuckle to myself for weeks afterward, so I net out positive. Save your inhibited conversations for church or a really stifled parent-teacher conference or something. I’d much rather you be real with me. That said, I thought I’d share here a few things I’d be ok not hearing again.

1. “That’s my cancer smelling dog” — Last week I had a consult with an alternative doctor. Something about the “alternative” label had me expecting someone warm and fuzzy. Wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. This guy was colder than a witch doctor’s tit. He might have swapped the clinical white coat for a ponytail, but the demeanor was indistinguishable from a western doctor. However, one thing did differ; he had a dog roaming around the office. When the dog wandered into our consult room and sat beside me, I saw it as an opportunity to break the ice with Dr. Serious. I started petting her and said “Oh, what a sweet dog, I think she likes me.” He replied, stone-faced with a wave of his hand “Oh no, she’s just our cancer smelling dog.”

Uh. Say wut? Nothing warms the cockles of my heart like being told I stink of cancer. I stopped petting the narc bitch, and tried to re-focus on my consult. Meanwhile, the dog keeps wandering in and out of the room, appearing to repeatedly ID me. Finally, I say to Dr. Sensitive, “You know, it’s kind of disconcerting that your cancer smelling dog keeps returning to me.” And he looks at me, bewildered “Oh, no, don’t worry about it, she’s retired.” Retired? What does that mean? You’ve stopped paying her? She only smells my cancer as a hobby now? He seemed mystified as to why it might perturb a patient to have a cancer smelling dog repeatedly cozy up to them during an appointment. But, I’m here to tell you: that shit is unnerving. For future reference, if you happen to have a cancer smelling dog, keep that jewel to yourself.

2. “God only gives you what you can handle” – Really? First of all, is your God claiming responsibility for giving me this lovely disease? Because if so, your sales pitch sucks. Second, this is not a reasonable thing to ask someone to handle. I’m doing my best, and I’m optimistic. But, the reality is that many more people than not with my type of diagnosis perish rapidly. So, apparently your deity is in the business of doling out more than people can handle. Try again.

3. “Embrace Joy” – This makes me want to embrace … your neck. I am trying to find joy on a daily basis. I think it is incredibly important. But, this journey is no cake-walk, and it’s offensive when someone minimizes that. Unless a statement like this is timed very well, it can come off incredibly patronizing.

4. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – You are about to get very strong … because I am about to try to kill you. I am facing diagnosis of a terminal disease, not a set of push-ups in boot camp class. The 5 year survival rate for Stage IV NSCLC is <5%, so not many patients are going to enjoy the promised strengthening benefits. Take your Eye of the Tiger somewhere else, Rocky. I don’t want or need cancer to make me any stronger, thanks.

Now that I’ve written all this out and made everyone super self-conscious, probably no one’s going to want to talk to me. That’s a bummer, because really mostly I just wanted to tell everyone that crazy cancer smelling dog story.

I’m not looking for more ostracization. So, here’s the deal. If you don’t know what to say, just stick to basics. A heart felt “I’m sorry,” “I’ve been thinking of you,” or even an honest “I have no idea what to say,” goes a really long way. We’re all just muddling through this the best we can. I get it.  And, if you happen to say something stupid, I promise I’ll respond politely in the moment. Especially if you pet my new doggie; she seems to really like you.