kate bohdanowicz writer

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What not to say to someone with cancer

Now I’m halfway through the chemo (so far, mainly nausea and tiredness: I’m literally sick and tired of it) I thought I’d blog on what not to say to someone with cancer. All of the following have been said to me in the six-and-a-half months since my diagnosis, although it must be said, some have come from people I love who never meant to cause offence and have actually made me laugh.

“Should you be drinking?”* I heard this while dining al fresco with my sister one lunchtime late last summer. I’d had a terrible morning and was still trying to digest the news. She dragged me out and offered to buy me lunch. I told her I fancied a glass of wine but I daren’t. Not sure why. She persuaded me and as I took my first sip, a woman I vaguely know walked by and said that. I didn’t have another drink for weeks.

*Oh and all the doctors tell me I should enjoy a glass of wine when I feel like it. The problem is I didn’t post-op and I rarely do now as chemo makes alcohol taste repellent.

“You should [eat this/do that/try this exercise/contact that person/be more open/stop writing about it].” Hmm. There’s nothing I should do so please, leave your advice at home.

Bore me with your medical knowledge plucked from the health pages of the Daily Mail.  I’ve lost count of how many people have told me about some miracle treatment or procedure and looked aghast when I didn’t know about it. Had my surgeons not mentioned it? Why ever not? Didn’t they want to help? Of course I then ran back to the doctors to find it’s hocus pocus or irrelevant to my case. I’m being treated by one of the UK’s leading urology/oncology teams at UCLH and I soon learned they’re the only ones worth listening to.

“My dad/nan/dog had cancer/chemo.” Really? How are they now? "Oh, they're dead." Not helpful folks. Not helpful.

“You’re having eight sessions of chemo? Most people have six.” When you say ‘most’ you mean that one person you know who’s had chemo, right? Yet chemo is tailored to the individual. Some people have a few sessions and some have a lot. I have 90 minutes of chemo each session whereas other people have eight hours. I’m having eight sessions, some people have six, some have 16.

“I thought you’d be thin.” I didn’t eat properly for six weeks after my operation and I lost a lot of weight. I was ill and scrawny, weak and depressed. Since then I’ve piled it back on and more, eating my way through London, partly because I enjoy it and partly due to the steroids I’m taking. I’m not thin but I’m told repeatedly by the medics I see, that I look healthy. Give me that over thin any day.

“I thought you’d be bald.” To be fair I haven’t had this although I know it’s what some people are thinking. Not all chemo is the same. Not all chemo causes hair loss.

“Can I call you Kate piss pot?” Er, no.

“Can I ask why you’d like a table near the bathroom?” I was asked this by a waiter at a restaurant. For once I was lost for words.

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