Be direct, say "How's your cancer?" Try not to say how well we look compared to when you met in Safeway's. Please don't cry, or get emotional, and say how dreadful it all is. Also (and this is hard I know) try not to ignore the ill, or to scurry past, muttering about a bus, the bank. Remember that this day might be your last and that it is a miracle that any of us stands up, breathes, behaves at all. (Julia Darling, “How to Behave with the Ill,” quoted in Adam Wishart, One in Three: A Son’s Journey into the history and science of cancer. New York: Grove Press, 2007. pp. 233. Please access http://juliadarling.co.uk/retro/behave.html for the full version of the poem.)
Adam Wishart whose father died of cancer wrote a book describing how his father coped with cancer and how the family was affected. While narrating his father’s cancer, he also blends in the history of cancer treatment which I find to be a delightful read. Here’s what he says towards the end of his book,
We need desperately, therefore, to learn how to talk about cancer and to regard it no longer as a painful taboo. There is an urgent need to do so, because each of us will one day be touched by the disease, as one in three people will be diagnosed with it within their lifetimes. It is time to understand that cancer is becoming a disease to live with rather than only die from. (Ibid)
Indeed, I think there is a need to learn how to talk about cancer, rather than pretending the illness is not there or affecting the one whom we love. I am not sure whether it is our Chinese culture’s emphasis on face that hushes discussion of the illness. It is by being honest and frank with one’s illness that one can continue to have the courage to face it and to walk the journey together with those whom he/she loves. I differ with Julia Darling about not getting emotional as it is only human to be emotional when his/her loved one is afflicted with terminal illness. I do understand the burden of the cancer patient to want to comfort those who are saddened and emotional. However, when friends and family members do get emotional, it is an avenue for all of us to cry together, to embrace each other and to walk this tough journey authentically together.
But I believe it may not be necessary to disclose the illness to every friends as some are not in a state whereby they are ready to empathize and attune to their own emotion. Some lack the capacity for grief as they are accustomed to a life of stability and have been living in a facade of success. It is a risk to make one's illness known. It is a risk to make oneself vulnerable and not knowing the outcome of that risk. I believe taking the risk may be worth it if one holds the conviction that life is still beautiful despite the many flaws and ugliness, and the beauty is enhanced or manifested when the friend and befriended, when the lover and beloved choose to stay committed in their relationship even when faced with the prospect of imminent separation. However, when either one chooses to forego this commitment, it is the cost of the risk one has chosen.