May 28, 2000
Angels and bolters: a field guide to the wildlife of cancer
Karen Ritchie M.D.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, strange things happen to other people. Cancer will probably change you, but it also changes people around you, people you thought you knew.
People behave in unexpected ways. Some you thought were friends disappear. Others hang around. And of those who keep coming around, you will be glad to see some, and less glad to see others.
You will find out who your friends are, as the saying goes. As if that's a good thing. As if anyone ever really wants to find out who can be counted on and who can't. Someone you rarely saw and didn't feel particularly close to may turn out to be the person who is most supportive, who most understands what you are going through.
Although each person's cancer experience is unique, there are some commonalities. The following is a guide to the creatures you may encounter.
Preachers are anxious to give you advice and information. They are convinced that they know what is best for you, and they go out of their way to share their answers. They bring you books and tapes, herbs and pills, or they know where you can send money - usually a lot of money - to obtain a product that is guaranteed to cure you. This guarantee, on closer examination, turns out to be more like a strong opinion.
So they will assure you that vegetarians don't get cancer, or meditators don't get cancer, or those who think happy thoughts. None of which is true. They bring you tofu and sprouts when you really want a pizza, and then you feel guilty for eating pizza at all. They insist that you think positive, at a time when you are bald and nauseated and have a temperature of 104 and a major body part is missing.
Preachers are usually well-meaning and sincerely concerned for your welfare, so they are hard to ignore. They are convinced that the one thing they promote is the thing that will cure your cancer, if you only do it correctly. This last part is the kicker - if it doesn't work, you must not be doing it right.
The clueless make inane comments. These comments usually fall into one of three categories:
- Cancer is not really a problem. (e.g., Losing your hair/body part/health is not really a problem.)
- Cancer is really a blessing. (You'll find out who your friends are. Cancer is a gift from God because you are so strong.)
- You caused your cancer.(Remember that time you had a negative thought? You are not praying hard enough.)
There are an infinite variety of idiotic remarks. When you have cancer you are liable to hear one or two that are amazingly thoughtless.
If preachers are honestly concerned for your welfare, the clueless are primarily concerned about themselves. They want you to be cheerful because it makes them more comfortable (this includes some health care personnel). Those who deny their own sadness and grief do not want to hear about yours.
The clueless want to believe that the world makes sense, that it is fair and just, that people get what they deserve. They are willing to ignore any evidence to the contrary. They don't really understand your situation; they cannot see your illness from your perspective. They are not interested enough to understand, or they are too fearful of their own well being.
But their ignorance is not your problem. Education of the clueless is extremely time-consuming and frequently doomed. It should be undertaken only in desperate circumstances, or out of sheer boredom. These people are exhausting. You may have to decide whether their company is worth the emotional cost, as you are likely to end up taking care of them.
Bolters disappear when you are diagnosed with cancer. The bolter is someone who was always around before you had cancer, but now does not call and does not show up. Bolters may or may not send a card before they leave.
When questioned, bolters make excuses: they knew you were tired, or they knew you would ask if you needed anything, thus blaming their absence on you. Like the clueless, their distance reflects their own discomfort. They stay away because they are afraid of their own sadness or their own mortality.
A related creature is the virtual bolter. Virtual bolters may be physically present but act as if you were no longer there. They ignore you, as if you were invisible. You find yourself not invited to events, as if you didn't exist. You are suddenly excluded from a weekly meeting you have attended for years.
Like the clueless, bolters are generally resistant to logic and are thought to be incurable. When they are caught and questioned they blame others, and it may be best to simply let them go.
Angels know what to do, and they know what you need. They drop by with a bag of groceries or they offer to walk the dog. They will listen when you need to talk, or they can just sit next to you and be there without having to do anything or say anything. They know that just being there is doing something. Angels tread lightly because they have no agenda of their own.
They treat you like the person you always were. They know that despite the cancer you are still you. Sometimes angels just know what you need, and sometimes they need to ask. An angel knows how to listen to the answer, how to listen to what you say and to what you're not saying. You can cry with angels and you can laugh with them, sometimes both at the same time. Some are born angels. Others have to learn, which takes time and may be awkward at first.
For fellow travelers, your cancer journey is their journey. Family members become fellow travelers out of necessity. Others stick with you by choice.
When you have cancer, they have it too. And in some ways their journey is harder, a time of frustration and powerlessness. While you can fight the cancer, they can only observe.
Fellow travelers want to be supportive, although at first they may not know how. They can become angels but it will take time. Most of us are not good listeners, and it takes a while to learn. You can help by being patient and by asking for what you need.
The clueless are right about one thing - there are good things about having cancer. The best is the opportunity for a closer relationship with those who care about you. And, of course, you learn who your friends are.