Having been at the receiving end, I feel strongly that people have no clue how to behave with those who are braving an illness. And I say this with a lot of understanding and compassion.
They get confused and end up saying the most inane, inept, and insensitive things. The strange part is that it all stems from kindness and a desire to actually help the patient. In truth, however, it has the opposite effect.
While I had hoped for strong, silent support, what I got in abundance was bon voyage confetti. While I had hoped for positive energy to lift my spirits, what I received were tragic tales of ‘people like me’ who had fought bravely but … (and this said with a sigh) had not been able to make it.
‘But I’m not going anywhere!’ I protested, to which the visitors responded by sharing gloomy stories of their sister’s aunt’s friend’s daughter’s aunty who had been afflicted by this ‘very painful disease’. They had all, of course, died.
On hearing the news about my illness, some people had stared at me in horror ... others in sorrow ... while others had thought it best to avoid me altogether, like the plague. But the most unforgettable were those who seemingly showed concern, but ended up saying the most unfortunate things.
Had I not been made of sterner stuff, I would have needed instant psychiatric help to recover from those jibes.
‘Don’t worry, everyone has to go. Be happy that at least you know how you are going.’
‘You must have done a lot of bad karma so you are being punished. It’s okay, what can you do? Be strong.’
But the most memorable was the reaction of my office staff. The news, like all sensational news, had travelled to my workplace faster than I could reach it.
So, when I reached office, draped in a fashionable sari, lipstick in place, people did not know what to make of me.
What is she smiling about? their puzzled looks seemed to say. Hasn’t she just been served the death sentence?
Seeing me marching on my stylish heels into my cabin, like a ship in full steam, they looked at each other in confused chaos.
‘Oh, the poor thing is trying so hard to pretend that she is normal.’
‘Is cancer infectious?’
But the cutest remark was made by a colleague who specializes in doomsday predictions. He came up to me, shook my hand warmly and said, ‘Be thankful you are not young. You have at least lived your life. It was very nice knowing you, madam.’
“On hearing the news about my illness, some people had stared at me in horror ... others in sorrow ... while others had thought it best to avoid me altogether, like the plague”
Never have I had my breast being stared at so openly. My overriding memory shall remain of people giving me sympathy and staring ‘down there’.
Before the operation, people would stare and look there sorrowfully, as if to figure out where exactly the mischievous lump was located. After the operation, they would stare to figure out whether it had all been cut off and whether I was wearing falsies.
In their eagerness to be supportive, people would thrust information of every kind of miracle cure that was sure to raise me from the dead. They would suggest healers who would put their hand ‘there’ to make it vanish and coax me to do charity to wash away my sins from several lifetimes. I truly began to feel like the biggest sinner on this planet.
And then there was the couple in another city, who had not been in touch with me for close to eight years. They had to come to rent-expensive Mumbai and were looking for a place to stay till their daughter got her college admission and was well-settled in the hostel. They zeroed in on my flat; I never suspected their hidden agenda.
Happy that I would be meeting old friends after so many years, I took special care to dress in my best jeans and shirt and spent time over my make-up.
The doorbell did not ring, but I became confused after hearing sounds of someone sobbing loudly outside. Curious, I opened the door, only to see the lady and her husband weeping inconsolably.
My happy smile froze on my face. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked, deeply concerned, holding her tight to console her.
Her weeping had transformed her face into a mask of suffering. I seriously became concerned and asked her how I could help her with her agony. She stuttered something incoherent, pointing at me.
The husband turned his tear washed face towards me and translated his wife’s gibberish.
‘It’s you … we can’t bear to see you go. We can’t bear to see you fight this alone. So, we have decided to be by your side, in your flat, till the next month.’
(Neelam Kumar, a corporate communication veteran is a cancer survivor based in Mumbai and is credited to have written the first ‘humorous’ book on cancer)
This article first appeared in the National Herald on Sunday