Wednesday, November 21, 2007

November 19, 2007 - My Cancer's Better Than Your Cancer

This evening I attend the monthly blood-cancer support group at The Wellness Community, sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. There are about eight of us, sitting around in a circle. Our facilitator is Tracie, an oncology nurse: well-informed, and relentlessly upbeat. Various blood cancers are represented: B-cell lymphoma (that’s me), T-cell lymphoma, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

Introducing herself, a woman with newly-diagnosed CLL says, “They tell me I’ve got the good cancer.”

A woman with Hodgkin lymphoma responds, “They told me I’ve got the good cancer.” There are smiles all around, as we recognize the macabre form of one-upmanship. Nobody wants to get into a game of “My cancer’s better than your cancer.” What would be the point?

Sometimes oncologists do say that sort of thing, in an effort to be encouraging. I’ve heard it myself from Dr. Lerner, who told me, at the time of my NHL diagnosis, “If you have to choose a form of cancer to have, this is the one to choose.”

It sounds suspiciously like the sort of situation some parents get into, as they tell each of their children in turn, “I love you best of all.” They don’t, of course. They love all their kids equally. But they think at the time it’s an encouraging thing to say, and for some reason it doesn’t dawn on them that the kids will ever talk to one another.

Is there a good cancer? Of course not. What the doctors mean, when they say such a thing, is “Yes, you’ve got a dread disease, but I think I can help you. I’ve got a lot of treatments to choose from, and can probably keep you in remission longer than you think.”

Support groups are wonderful, but they’re really not for making comparisons. They’re a place for honest sharing and for listening. The trick is to focus exclusively on the person speaking, and try to avoid saying, “He’s better off than me,” or “She’s worse off than me.” At their best, these groups are a place not only for exchanging practical information, but also for giving one another the precious gift of listening.

From what I’ve experienced so far, this group is a good one.

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