Have you noticed? People are universally sympathetic when they hear you have a loved one with cancer. They may or may not ask questions about it, depending on how well they know you and the vibes you are giving off - vibes of whether or not you want to talk about it. People will readily say “oh, that’s too bad” or “how is treatment going” or other such sympathetic phrases. They are genuinely caring and even heroic – shaving their heads, and doing all sorts of things to fundraise. As cancer seems to be becoming more common, people will often share their own story as a way to encourage you.
And why is that, do you think? People aren’t nearly as sympathetic towards other problems – divorce, abuse, unemployment, problems with children, bankruptcy, etc. So why are people so incredibly nice when cancer’s involved? I think it’s because we all believe that cancer is not your fault. Cancer is seen as an illness that strikes randomly, making everyone a possible target – anyone could get it at any time. So we are sympathetic, cooing words of comfort at the drop of the C-word. Why can’t we encourage people for any problem they have? Even if we don’t have any of our own stories to share, we could still say “hang in there! Teenagers grow up eventually” or “hope your divorce goes as smoothly as possible.” Aaaah, but it’s hard to have compassion when you’ve already thought somewhere deep down that it’s their fault this happened to them.
What if suddenly we stopped seeing cancer as random and instead learned that it was a direct result of diet or environment, for example? Would our compassion dissolve in the wind? Instead of kind words of encouragement, we’d hear “well, he did it to himself, eating that way all those years” or “she should have worked somewhere else.” Think about it – off all the cancers, people are least sympathetic about lung cancer, because the cause is pretty clearly understood (and we can be quick to judge smokers). So I am glad that no researcher has conclusively found the cause for all cancer,* because not knowing makes us more caring, strange as that may sound. Information is supposed to decrease ignorance, but in this case, I don’t think it would help.
So let’s be a little more compassionate when we hear of someone’s trouble, even if we think they may have gotten themselves into it. So what? We all get ourselves into messes sometimes – pretty regularly, in fact! Kindness has more power than unkindness, so let’s tap into it!
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*I just realized, cancer research always focuses on finding the cure, not the cause. I guess that’s an indication of how our medical system works – fix the problem after it’s happened, don’t try to prevent it. Or maybe people just don’t want to hear about looking for a cause, because that would make them examine their own life. Or am I just being skeptical? Ack, we’d better stick to thinking it’s completely random! Forget I said anything about causes!