Cancer Is A Lonely Battle And Ringside Cheerleaders Can Make It Worse

A cancer survivor explains why unsolicited advice does more harm than good.

There was a time when, after an initial blip, my uterus did its job so well I could set my monthly calendar by it. So when I found out that cancerous cells had decided to start a family on my endometrial wall, the first feeling I had to process was a sense of betrayal that this faithful friend had let me down.

It was not like I was a stranger to hospitals. Before my diagnosis, I had undergone an operation to deal with a slipped disc and was on a first-name basis with psoriasis. But whenever I felt an urge to wallow in my sorrows, I always managed to comfort myself with the reminder that things could be worse.

I was completely taken aback when, one Saturday in January 2014, my biopsy report came back positive. I had thought the heavy bleeding was because I was in the ‘pre-menopause’ stage and had subjected myself to the test only because of my inconvenient ‘family history’ and more than that, to make my gynecologist happy. Well, I barely got any time to worry before being informed that I had a virulent form of cancer,fortunately at Stage 1.

Around that time, I came across this sentence from Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life: “Our thoughts and vibrations attract disease and cancer is just a manifestation of festering thoughts.” That got me started on this tireless game of observing my thoughts and trying healing affirmations. My monkey mind jumps from one thought to the other, so you can see how trying to get rid of pessimistic thoughts became a full-time occupation.

“And as many survivors would vouch, there is no dearth of helpful suggestions; many of these are about how changing your diet can cure cancer”

And what about the scenario outside my monkey mind? Cancer is a lonely battle, and it can be made worse when ‘ringside cheerleaders’ dole out well-meaning advice and gift books and forward videos without thinking much about it.

“Patients don’t want to open up about their battles with cancer,” said Ritu Sharma, who manages the emotional support group of the Indian Cancer Society, “Not because they feel the need to keep it under wraps but to avoid too many suggestions and advice from others.”

And as many survivors would vouch, there is no dearth of helpful suggestions; many of these are about how changing your diet can cure cancer—’a bushelful of turmeric’, says one. ‘A spadeful of lemons,’ proclaims another.

I use turmeric liberally and have been drinking sugarless lemon tea for years, so I just felt even more cheated when I heard these. A booklet I read during that time helpfully informed me that I had not allowed “the flow of energy to certain areas of my body, namely the uterus”, hence letting cancerous cells fester. In a nutshell, my carelessness had attracted cancer.

After my surgery, I religiously expanded my diet to include a rainbow of fruits, managed not to turn up my nose at wheatgrass, picked the choicest green tea leaves and went through the process of studiously acquiring a taste for green tea. And my cheerful attitude could give even the most gregarious New Year’s Eve party emcee a run for their money.

Most of the advice I’ve mentioned above falls into the harmless category, but this is not always the case. Attributing the illness to ‘bad karma’ or ‘questioning lifestyle choices’ borders on cruelty to the one already suffering.

“Sometimes, patients who are reeling under the side-effects of chemo get lured by suggestions of herbs or alternate medication which claim no side effects. It is far better to use these alternative medicines in addition to their current line of treatment after keeping their doctors informed. We have had way too many cases where patients have come to get allopathic treatment after the cancer has significantly advanced. This is because they tried other treatments and when the pain got unbearable they came to hospitals but by then in most cases it is too late,” said Sharma.

No two cancers are the same, even if they may have attacked the same organ. Even the reaction varies from patient to patient. I have had people coming up to me saying that I was lucky to have it in an organ that can be removed… well, maybe so, but to claim that I am lucky is stretching it a bit too far.

A visitor told me that getting cancer today is not as bad as it used to be because there are many more treatment options. That may be true, but is not the best sentiment to share with someone grappling with the side-effects of radiation.

Alpa Dharamshi, a multilingual counsellor who runs the counselling centre Pehechaan tells her patients and caregivers not to entertain visitors who speak about negative topics such as death. “Keeping ignorance at bay is necessary for your own mental and emotional stability. Friends and family who have a positive attitude and who make the patient cheerful, happy and positive are far more preferable,” she said.

“Many of us ordinary souls fighting cancer, this far-from-ordinary disease, don’t want to hear how lucky we are or how brave we have been.”

So did I only encounter unwittingly offensive people during my journey? Not at all. I have had people lighting a candle for me, calling me to share some gossip from work or visiting me to just hand over a few books. You can help a cancer survivor in a number of ways, not just by giving suggestions where the onus is on the beleaguered patient .

Mohan Phani recalls how, when his wife had to be operated on at a government hospital, their friends were of invaluable help.

“I maintained an Excel sheet to monitor the time slots that I couldn’t manage. I threw open the challenge to our friends and had an instant response. They chose their convenient slots and the working ones would spend the designated hours in my wife’s room with their computer and work from there. We owe them a lot,” he said.

Few cancer survivors can react like tennis great Arthur Ashe, who contracted HIV after a blood transfusion. He once wrote that when people inquired whether he ever asks ‘Why me?’, he thought that he should ask the same question when confronted with his blessings as well.

Many of us ordinary souls fighting cancer, this far-from-ordinary disease, don’t want to hear how lucky we are or how brave we have been when the disease never comes with the preamble, “Are you strong enough to handle me?” We definitely would like to hear, “Can I be of any help?”

Chandrika R Krishnan is a freelance writer and behavioural skills facilitator.