Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Rudest Question You Can Ask About Someone With Cancer

My dad was recently diagnosed with throat cancer. Upon hearing the news, more than one person’s immediate response has been to ask, “Oh, did he smoke?”

In some ways, it’s a fair question. We know smoking can cause cancer, including lung cancers and throat cancers.

But it’s a question that is exceedingly rude and insensitive.

Yes, my dad smoked. He quit when I was a little girl, when his dad got lung cancer. He was already a teenager when the landmark Surgeon General’s report on smoking came out and grew up in a rural state where 20% of people still smoke today and tobacco was the number one cash crop.

That’s the thing: every time someone asks this question, it puts me in the position of excusing my dad, of providing a rationale for why he might have smoked. What this starts to sound like is,

“Because you asked if he smoked, I need to provide you with a rationale. You – a person who is not directly affected by the situation and probably hasn’t met my dad – deserve some sort of explanation about why my dad was so stupid and therefore deserves the cancer he is now suffering from.”

Surely that’s not what these questioners intend. I know that when faced with bad things, people like to find an explanation. They especially like the explanation that allows them to feel like they would never experience such a bad fate because they are too smart to suffer. As the family member of a cancer patient? I’m not even remotely interested in the being the mechanism other people use to dismiss their own fear of mortality, and I find it especially infuriating when anyone’s first reaction is to ask a question intended to solve their own personal anxiety: “Is there something dumb your dad did, that I would never do? I don’t have to worry about this, do I? Oh, good.”

It is not my job to be your source of abstract relief. I sure as hell don’t owe anybody a tool they can use to blame my dad for his own suffering.

Asking cancer patients if they ever smoked seems to be widely acceptable to many people who would never be so rude when people are suffering from other illnesses and misfortune. Did your mom die in a car wreck? Oh, did she drive every day? Tsk tsk. You know how dangerous driving is. Did a woman you know suffer serious illness or death in pregnancy or childbirth? She should have anticipated that possible bad outcome when she had sex. Had a seriously premature baby? You must not have done everything right. Have a heart attack? You should have exercised at least this many times per week for this long, you know.

In each of these scenarios, something *could* have been done to potentially avoid or delay the bad outcome. Perhaps these bad things don’t happen as often as smoking-related illnesses, but somehow people know it would be exceedingly rude to ask such questions when they *do* happen. As one author asks:

Are we to believe that death by cancer would be less tragic — would be, in fact, deserved — if the dearly departed inhaled a pack a day?

I haven’t yet figured out the best way to answer those who ask the dreaded question. I know for certain that I am not always going to have the mental energy to respond patiently, and yet it also seems unacceptable for the family members to explain why the question is so rude. You know, we’re just supposed to be grateful that anyone is expressing their sympathies at all. But folks shouldn’t be surprised if I answer their question with a question: “How will my answer to that question change how you are going to talk to me about this stressful family event?”

Or, on more stressful days, perhaps, “Why do you think you have a right to know?”