Stop asking people “how much time” their loved ones have left!

(c) Ashley Lane

Us lovely ladies in Alexandria, VA, after I graduated from college. 🙂

My mom was recently diagnosed with Stage 4a, non-small cell adenocarcinoma of the lung. Which is a fancy way of saying, advanced [former-] smoker’s lung cancer. She hasn’t smoked in 15 years, but apparently lung cancer risk is the one thing that doesn’t diminish when you quit smoking, which they should really mention on all those posters (e.g.) about how much healthier you’ll be minutes, days, and years after you quit. When she started smoking, people didn’t know the risks; when she saw that her secondhand smoke was starting to affect me, she quit cold turkey. Unfortunately, that was about 35 years later because she had me late in life. I was shocked to realize that it could come back to haunt her so many years later. The woman hates cigarette smoke now and gives everyone creating it the evil eye… how could she have lung cancer?!

Anyway, the reaction of many of the people I’ve discussed this with thus far has been, “Oh yeah, [name of person or persons I know] died of that (or some other cancer). They gave [him/her/each of them] [x amount of time]. How much time did they give your mom?” Of course there are variations on this. Some don’t mention relatives or friends with cancer, but still ask a thinly veiled and morbid version of “So when’s she gonna croak?” Others tell horrifying tales of loved ones with stage 4 lung cancer from so long ago (at least in terms of the advances in lung cancer treatment) that it’s irrelevant except for shock value. And then there are those who will say that they have loved ones currently battling lung cancer and will give me all the gory details of failed treatments and awful side effects, only to slip in later that it’s actually a different kind of cancer that happens to have made it to the lungs through metastasis. No matter how you slice it, IT IS NOT OKAY TO ASK ME WHEN MY MOM IS GOING TO DIE. Hell, it’s not even okay to ask when our family dog is going to die.

I get that it’s hard to know what to say in the face of tragedy. It’s fine to ask how she’s doing, what her prognosis is, or how she’s responding to treatment. I may not always have good answers, but these questions let me know you care about how I’m doing, too. It is absolutely not okay to force the person(s) closest to a sick loved one to respond to questions about life expectancy unless they’ve volunteered the information and you want clarification. Would you ask her “When are you going to die?” No? (I certainly hope that was your answer.) Then don’t ask me! I can’t help but feel, if you do, that you’re more interested in the shock value than any of the people involved.

I just found out about all this, too, you know. I don’t want to think about my mom dying any more than I already am, which, believe me, is plenty. I don’t want to be your therapist while you think about my mom dying. I’m terrified and worried and angry and a million other things right now, but until we have the results back that will dictate her treatment and give us some insight into the likelihood that she’ll respond well to it, we don’t have a good handle on her prognosis, so I have to keep trying to live my life for right now—PLEASE LET ME!

This is a hugely stressful ordeal as it is, between the obvious issues and the uncertainty surrounding them at the moment, money as it relates to bridging the physical distance between me and my mom, the questions about planning my future that this has prompted, etc. I already have relatives judging me for not coming into town yet, even though my mom has asked me to wait until they have the fluid in her chest under control so she can enjoy talking to me and going on little excursions to take her mind off things. I just made it through the worst Mother’s Day (so far) because we found out right beforehand. I cry at random. So please DO NOT, under any circumstances, recite a list of cancer victims to me and/or ask when my mom will be among them. Also DO NOT, under any circumstances, tell me my experience won’t be as bad as yours or I won’t hurt as much as you did. Those of you who’ve already done that, please go find the nearest mirror and ask yourselves, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH ME?” You’re welcome to entertain more severe punishments, as well.

The good news is, lots of people have been supportive, from my mom (who’s a total trooper) to near-strangers to other daughters with former-smoker or cancer patient parents. Those closest to me have been amazing, including my boyfriend, my best friend, and my boyfriend’s mom who lets me rant to her about all these assholes I’ve encountered since this started, which I’m trying not to unload on my mom right now because she has enough to deal with already.

Her doctor seems wonderful and he’s hoping that we can manage the cancer for “years and years” with the new treatments available. [Former-] smokers’ cancer mutates less and responds better to the available treatments because it is more common and has been studied more than never-smokers’ lung cancer. My boyfriend’s brilliant applied math adviser has done research on targeted therapy in the form of monoclonal antibodies and most of the research he and his fellow grad students do is somehow applicable to cancer research, so I know progress is being made and I have many resources at my disposal to help me understand every aspect of what’s going on. Besides that, I’m an intelligent person who educates herself about things like this. So yeah, I know what the 5-year survival rate for stage 4 lung cancer is according to the internet. I also know that that takes into account decades of deaths before the recent advances, making the numbers useless to my family. Don’t quote them at me. Don’t treat me like I’m being naïve or like I don’t understand what’s going on as well as you do. I assure you, given that my mom is only sharing information with certain people to minimize the confusion and drama, I understand very well what is going on and may lose my s**t the next time someone condescends to me on the topic.

To the rest of you, thank you so very much for your (appropriate) support during this rough time.

And that, Jumpers, is my rant for the day. Have you ever been mad offended by someone’s comments about a loved one with cancer or another serious disease? Do you agree that it’s offensive to ask someone so close to the patient, so soon after the diagnosis, “how much time” there is left?

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