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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Big C

It’s a word most of us tiptoe around; and when we do deal with it, we usually get it wrong

You expect gurus to give gyaan on how to live our lives and perhaps, how to prepare for the afterlife. What you don’t expect them to do is to hold forth on medical science and tell us how to remain disease free. So, you can imagine the consternation when the ‘Yogi, Mystic and Visionary’ (that’s his Twitter bio; I kid you not) who goes by the name of Sadhguru tweeted this to mark World Cancer Day: “#Cancer is no disease but unknowingly touching the Self-Destruct button. Needs deeper exploration…”

Needless to say, accusations of insensitivity and ignorance flew around and among the most offended were people who had survived cancer and could not believe they were being told that their ill-health was because they had ‘unknowingly touched the Self-Destruct button’.

Intrigued by this throwaway remark, I went on to the venerable Sadhguru’s website to read more about his theories on cancer. And among the reams of prose about the ‘energy body’ the ‘food body’ and the ‘mental body’, I found this little gem about breast cancer: “Today, some women do not conceive at all, or for most women, childbearing is over before they are 30 years of age…the necessary hormones and enzymes are still being produced but are not made use of…that part of the body becomes low energy, which attracts cancerous cells and becomes a place for them to accumulate.”

So, there you are, ladies. You better push a couple out before the Big C gets you.

I’m kidding, of course. But the worrying thing is that many people are probably taking this as gospel truth. And God alone knows how many women are now berating themselves for getting breast cancer because they didn’t take their reproductive duties seriously.

But while this is sad and troubling enough, what is even worse is that it is not just ‘visionaries’ like Sadhguru or the miracle-cure touting Ramdev who indulge in this kind of talk. The rest of us don’t cover ourselves in glory either, when it comes to speaking about cancer or dealing with those who suffer from it. It’s not that we are necessarily insensitive or even wish to give offense. It’s just that we tend to be a little tone-deaf when it comes to this subject.

Let’s just take one phrase: ‘cancer survivor’. We use that to describe those who have overcome the disease. But what does that make those who haven’t? Are they ‘cancer victims’?  

And then, there’s our propensity to say stuff like “She battled bravely against cancer and beat it.” Which sounds very upbeat and lovely but what is the sub-text here? That those who ‘lost’ to cancer did not ‘fight’ hard enough? That it is their fault that they are dead? Clearly not. But it does seem like we are blaming them for not being good enough to beat the Big C.

So, how does one negotiate the minefield that surrounds the disease? Well, here’s a list of some do’s and don’ts.

·     *  Don’t bombard patients with clichés like “Stay positive” and “Stay Strong”. The last thing someone coping with chemotherapy and intimations of mortality needs is some gormless creature chirping: ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. Or even blithering on about how important it is to ‘fight hard’ against the disease. It’s not just annoying, it’s offensive. Especially because it puts the onus of recovery on the patient. Not getting any better? That’s because you’re not fighting hard enough. Cancer not responding to treatment? You really need to work on that positive attitude. Surely, you can see how infuriating this kind of stuff can get?

·     *  Don’t come armed with anecdotes about other people who had cancer and how they coped with the disease when you visit. It’s really not helpful to know that your aunt was diagnosed with the very same disease and how she found this wonderful doctor who cured her. It is even less helpful to be told about your neighbour’s mother who was diagnosed too late for help (“the tumour was just too big and too awkwardly positioned for surgery”) and passed away peacefully at home. We all have stories about people in our lives who suffered from this dreaded disease. But we must learn to keep them to ourselves and focus on the unique experience of the person sitting before us.

·     *  And whatever you do, please don’t talk about miracle cures. Don’t suggest a pilgrimage to some saint’s shrine. Don’t offer magic water from some scared lake. Just don’t. It amounts to insulting people’s intelligence or giving them false hope. And it does no good.

·    *   Do try and offer practical help. If there are young children in the house, offer to take them off for a special treat so that the mother/father can have some time off. Set up a team of volunteers, who can help with cooking dinner and lunch on a relay basis. Accompany the patient to hospital when he/she goes for chemotherapy and distract them with idle chat – or even just sit in companionable silence.

·     *  Do try and remember that this is your friend/family member/loved one, a person with an identity that goes beyond their cancer status. Ask about their health if you must but don’t dwell upon it. Nobody wants to feel as if the only interesting thing about them is the disease they are suffering from. They’d much rather you treated them just like you did before. So laugh, joke, argue, and yes, fight. Because that’s the only way you can make them feel like their normal selves. And they’d give anything to feel like that for even one fleeting moment.

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