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Do You Treat a Cancer Survivor Differently?

People react strongly when friends experience major life events. You see this phenomenon whenever someone posts an engagement ring photo on Facebook. Regardless of its carats or cut, a diamond unleashes a flood of Likes, Congrats, and Sooooo Happy for Yous!

But how do you react to a cancer survivor?

Obviously, engagements and cancer diagnoses are very different life events. But with cancer, etiquette isn’t as familiar or established. This leads to varied reactions based on each individual’s perception of illness.

Our friend Ed is a stage 4 pancreatic cancer survivor. Since his diagnosis, he’s blogged extensively and shared amazing insights on his GiveForward Page, Team Ed.

Ed Siemienkowicz shares his insights as a cancer survivor on his GiveForward Page.

Ed Siemienkowicz shares his insights as a cancer survivor on his GiveForward Page.

Something Ed’s noticed is how people treat him differently as a cancer survivor. Although these attention shifts aren’t necessarily harmful, he perceives most people fitting among these 4 groups:

  1. The Eyebrows – “You know, the sympathy brows. ‘Aw, Ed. How are you doing?’ It’s going to be the most common question, especially if you’re not sick, but some folks can’t help but to ask it twice: once at the beginning of seeing you, and later. It’s as if the conversation you’ve been having was a lie on their part just to make you comfortable enough to admit how you REALLY are.”
  2. The Softies – “Even though they check out these updates and keep in decent contact with me, treat me as if I’m frail, just released from the hospital and suffering all the time. Sure, there’s rough patches from the chemo, and I’m not as strong as I used to be, but I’m fairly independent. It’s a thing I didn’t realize I enjoyed and took pride in until I couldn’t be anymore. Except for heavy lifting or strenuous exercise I’m doing better every day.”
  3. The Boosters – “They probably remember who you were, and what you used to do, so they invite you to things like late night dancing, spelunking, Tough Mudder competitions. ‘Hey, Ed! I just left a voice mail. Were you out running?’ Running? I’m happy that I can take stairs two at a time and not curl up into a nap-fetus when I reach the top. While it’s true that I’m doing yoga, riding a bike, and taking longer, faster walks, let’s just slow our roll, here, and not put the carts before the horses.”
  4. The Interviewers – “They might keep up with the updates, but they’ll ask redundant questions (much like the swarms of residents in teaching hospitals, AMIRITE?), leaning into them like a 60 Minutes interviewer. ‘What can you eat? What type of chemo is it? Will it change the consistency of your sweat?’ I’m glad they’re interested in my well-being, but does anybody who’s not a medical student care that much?”

Ed doesn’t point out these archetypes to make people feel bad. In his own words, “I do not take any of the interest in my well-being or care for my person for granted, and I’m not that big a jerk to actually be annoyed by it.”

However, when people you know experience major life events, think about how you treat them. You may be surprised by how you unknowingly morph into an Eyebrow, when they really need the same ol’ friend who’s sooooo happy to know them.

You can read more of Ed’s insights on Team Ed, follow his daily musings @9mm_Ed, and check out his art at

Whose world will you change?