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Brain Freeze: The C word waltz

CW: Cancer, surgery.

So I’m talking to someone, right. Say I don’t really know them. Well maybe I do, a bit. A friend of a friend. My name’s been mentioned in conversations, I’ve been told I have to meet them. That kind of thing. So anyway, we’re talking, and I let something slip – mention that I’ve taken a year out of uni, or even worse say something stupid. Something along the lines of “Oh yeah, I tried bran flakes for the first time in hospital”. 

Oooooooh shit. Deboraaaaaa. You were doing the normal thing tonight. You promised yourself when you were doing your makeup before the party that you’d be Normal Debora with No Significantly Shocking Medical History. But you did it. It’s hard, to be fair, to pretend it never happened. And you know what, why should you pretend, why should you hide it because it was awful and how can you hide that?

Yeah sure, there’s that whole angle. Transparency for whatever reason: raising awareness about brain tumours, destigmatising it all, getting clout for your trauma. But I remember very quickly why I wanted to hide my dramatic medical history. Because as soon as the words emerge from my mouth and hit the eardrums of my conversation partner, a cringe inducing, exhausting, I-want-to-scream-into-a-pillow provoking dance begins. An awkward dance, a minefield to navigate. The C Word Waltz. It’s what I call the weird conversation that is initiated when someone realises that an Actual Former Cancer Patient is standing in front of them, and they don’t know how to respond because we don’t exist in a society that has productive conversations about cancer (no, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t count). Now, dear reader, the preferred choreography of The C Word Waltz varies from person to person, but because I am a kind teacher, I will take you through a few different iterations.

There is the “Doe-Eyed Shock” version. They genuinely had no idea and don’t know exactly what happened but get the vibe that it was something bad. “You don’t have to talk about it” they say. I truly appreciate the sensitivity, but I know for a fact that they would get an inaccurate retelling of the story from someone else and stare at me from across the room all night in fear. I give in and quickly tell them. They’ll get quite upset and I’ll actually feel bad for them because my trauma is so traumatic, and I’ll end up comforting them even though I’m the one that had cancer. This is overall a harmless interpretation of the Waltz, although I don’t enjoy feeling guilty when they get sad that I had cancer.

Up next, we have one that makes me seethe with white hot rage. The Waltz performed in the “Oh Yeah, I Know” style. They nod knowingly and play it cool – “Oh yeah, [so and so] told me”. Oh my god. Shut up. Literally shut up. What a great way of telling me that you’ve been gossiping about me, you annoying little – I sound bitter? Sorry, lovely reader. It’s because I am.

Next up we have the “Overfamiliar Arrogance”, and it’s perhaps the one with the highest success rate of making me quite upset. They think I’ll feel more at ease if they add a little bit of humour into the equation, and make a joke about it all. I find that people often do this when they’re faced with something that they can’t really relate to. I’ve seen it happen to a whole range of people who, for some reason or other, have an inherent difference to the person they’re talking to. It’s the kind of exchange that makes me go to the bathroom and dry heave afterwards. Here’s the thing that lovers of this particular interpretation of the Waltz need to understand. If someone has a scab, they’re allowed to pick at it. Make jokes about it. But under no circumstances can you do that if you aren’t familiar with how the person with the injury treats their wound.

I lied when I said that one was the most upsetting, because a very close contender is the “I Knew Someone Who Had That and They Had a Really Painful Death and/or Suffered a Lot” version. Honourable mentions go to the following: “Holy Shit That’s Awful” (fair enough, it was pretty bad), the “But Are You Okay Now?” (I mean I don’t have the brain tumour anymore, but I’m really traumatised, and I know you don’t want to hear about that) and the “Oh Yeah I Read Your Column It Was So Good” (this is great and not enough people say this even though it’s the least you could do).

And it’s weird, to be honest, these feelings that I have around the Waltz. Because sometimes I think that I bring it on myself by being so open about it all. I once asked an oncologist: “How do I explain it all to people when I go back to university?”. She very plainly replied: “You don’t have to tell anyone”. And she was right, I didn’t have to. But the thing is, I did. And I still do. The reason that I hate The C Word Waltz is the very reason why I need to keep talking about it. Someone has to do the awkward dance, so that the choreography runs smoother for the next person. We live in a world where cancer is seen as something so awful that you can’t talk about it, you just furrow your brows in sympathy or say something stupid to mask your discomfort. But you don’t have to do that. Now, my sweet reader, if we see each other at a party and this conversation comes up – ask questions, show genuine emotion. But don’t tell me about your pet that died from the same type of cancer that I had.

Image Credit: Waltz at the Bal Mabille / CC PDM 1.0 (Public Domain)

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