“I am glad you are doing well” is probably the most insensitive thing I hear.
“You look so great!” is another doozy.
I am not sure what about stage 4 cancer falls under the category of well. I don’t complain of, or share every single side effect, ache, and pain with my friends on social media or in real life. That does not mean I don’t suffer every day. But most of my suffering is my own. I deal with it.
I am not a bald, emaciated, sobbing, dying mess…yet. That does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that I am “doing well.” A stage 4 cancer patient may have all her hair even as the battle between rogue cells and harsh chemicals rages on the battlefield that is her body. At times, I cope with the shitty hand I was dealt by denying to myself that I have an incurable illness. I distract myself by doing things that are positive and healthy. Though I try my best, one can’t always keep the terror at bay.
I am on chemotherapy. Like most stage 4 patients on continuous treatment, I am tired a lot. My doctors can’t tell yet whether this will all be worth it. Life must go one even as a small part of me is always aware that I am just one scan away from death’s doorstep. Soon, I will retire from medicine at a phase of life meant for professional growth. I may leave two young kids motherless. I have friends with cancer who are dying.
Saying that “you are doing well” may serve a purpose for those who say it. It doesn’t do anything for me and is, at times, rather infuriating. Maybe I am doing better than what people expect given my diagnosis. Perhaps, the fact that I am still upright and comforting others is deceiving. But I am not doing great, or thinking that things are well.
Given the set of circumstances, I am doing okay. I try to live as close to normal a life as I can. It takes a great effort to look well. I don’t talk about my bad days, days where I lose courage or feel defeated. I can’t avoid having those days.
Cancer sucks. Stage 4 cancer sucks even more. Hearing that someone is glad that I am “doing well,” makes it feel even worse.
I realize that most people who say this are not trying to be mean. They are well-intentioned. What would I rather have them say? I would rather that they say something that lets me know that they see my struggle. That they know how hard it is. I wish they would say something like, “Cancer sucks. Managing all of it must be so hard. It must take a lot of motivation to look as well as you do. I hope for lots of strength so you can keep up. I hope you feel well.”
[Commentary by Dheeraj Raina: This is a composite version of two Facebook posts and some unpublished content that Uzma wrote in 2016 and 2017. The words are hers. I have edited them only for grammar and clarity. To read my approach to her unpublished work, read this.]