Not too long ago when I was still classified as having cancer I went into my favourite independent book store and stumbled upon Teva Harrison’s graphic memoir In Between Days in which Teva, an artist, author and cartoonist, beautifully and authentically describes her experience with metastatic breast cancer. One particular cartoon had me in stitches. In it Teva perfectly captures the awkwardness of making small talk when you have cancer. She highlights the struggle to keep the conversation light but trying not feel like a misrepresented loser.
In the cartoon an innocent looking stranger asks Cartoon Teva, “What do you do?”
Cartoon Teva attempts an explanation for why she’s not working, “oh I am on sabattical.”
To which the stranger replies, “must be nice.”
Oh yes, the sabbatical, what an awesome explanation. I have used words like mini-retirement, taking a break, or simply saying I’m not working and yet every time people’s jealousy shines through the second I mention a break. Their face twists and they snicker at me while saying some condescending remark that infers I’m a spoiled weasel. Not exactly my goal.
The story continues when Cartoon Teva says, “lets try that again, I’m on leave from work.”
To which the stranger replies, “Oh stress leave?”
“Something like that.”
Yes, I’ve tried that one too, for some reason it only seems to mystify my situation more or it ends up making me look like a basket case who is incapable of coping with everyday stressors. Again, not what I was going for.
In response to the original question Cartoon Teva tries again, “or maybe, I draw mostly”
The stranger replies, “you’re so brave to take the leap to do that full time”
“You have no idea.”
None of these excuses adequately explain leaving work because of illness so instead Cartoon Teva tries a different approach.
When a new stranger asks “so what do you do?”
She replies, “I have cancer, mostly, I do that.”
Omg. Laughing. Can’t stop. So true! Bravo Teva for making a horrible situation hilariously funny. There is nothing like dropping the CANCER bomb to end all small talk. Telling people you have cancer is like plowing through a conversation with a Mack truck. The person you’re speaking with ends up looking like they’ve just been run over. To which I wish I could respond, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how hard my cancer is for you, dear stranger.” People become totally uncomfortable and desperate for a way out of this bummer of a conversation. It’s weird enough attempting small talk when you have cancer so the last thing you want to do is make it MORE awkward. In an effort to avoid the C word, I too have struggled to come up with explanations of my work stoppage. I’ve said things like:
– “Oh, I still work, just part time” (It was sort of true… even though I barely worked 1.5 hrs a week as a TA and even then I rarely showed up since most days I was in the emergency room. Nevertheless, this seemed to satisfy people’s need for me to be working– weird.)
– “I’m working on healing.” (oh no… I just opened a can of worms… this can only lead to the ultimate conversation ender, the C word.)
– “No, I’m not working, I’m focusing on my hobbies right now.” (Ok, this is admittedly a stretch. What was my intended follow up? Hah… ya, like my hobby of vomiting 24/7, sure it’s new for me but I’m getting really good at it.)
It gets even more frustrating when the questions shift from work to deeper pains like whether I have kids. Unfortunately, I’m never quick enough or brave enough to spit out my real thoughts and I end up just bottling my inner rage. For instance, when the Type A lady at the gym asked me if I had any kids, I replied, “no, I don’t have kids,” hoping that would be the end of it.
While running on the spot next to me she continues, “oh you’re so LUCKY! Kids just destroy your bladder and then you leak out a little pee when you do jumping jacks!”
In my head I’m screaming, “LUCKY? LUCKY? I don’t have kids because I’m infertile from cancer so SHUT UP and keep your awkward overshares to yourself!” But instead, I replied (with an awkward smile on my face), “oh… wow… I guess I am lucky, thaaaaannnnnks!”
Just another small talk fail. I’m with you Teva!