“Honesty has nothing to do with truth. Honesty is about getting the same result as from telling the truth but in a gentler way.”
When honesty is preferable to the truth
When I returned to hospital with septicaemia, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Nurses and doctors avoided telling me directly; possibly because it was more urgent that they fix a problem common to hospitals. I was delirious and in pain so it was down to bare basics for me, like finding a comfortable position in which to lie. They moved me into a private ward as soon as I was released from ICU saying I needed to be in a cold-as-possible environment. Over the next few weeks, their hovering was constant and when I queried my condition, they often replied that I was a special patient. At the time, it worked for me. I was getting the best care, the private ward allowed me visitors at any time, and I could focus on getting well without the mortification that comes with negotiating the commode at all hours – an indelicate necessity.
Months on, out of hospital, enduring chemo, it struck me that they’d had to isolate me to avoid contaminating other patients. That was the truth. In retrospect it didn’t hurt to be aware of this but at the time, it’d only have made me feel worse about my situation and at the time they knew I’d be served better by my strengths being focused on getting well.
When it’s not
A thoughtful colleague had lent me some scarves for if and when I’d want to cover my thinning head of hair – a huge adjustment. They came in very useful and the bright colours made me feel unashamed. When my hair began to grow back and I was confident enough to show my thinned short haircut in public, I returned the scarves to her with thanks saying I wouldn’t need them again but that I had others should something go awry. She responded, “No, it won’t. You’ll be fine now and you look fantastic.”
The truth was probably uncomfortable for her to contemplate. It wasn’t for me. Being positive is different from being optimistic. That instant of non-truth gave a me a little insight into human nature. We say things to meaning to encourage and there’s much value in that but people also “just say things”. Because I’d already accepted the possibility that I could lose my hair again (hell, I’d just done it and I could manage it a second time in order to be well once more), the nicety served no purpose.
How it worked for me
A stage came where I realised how alone I am in this. You cannot understand what the searing pain of a stubbed toe is like until you’re going through it. Similarly, if you haven’t personally dealt with the mental and emotional stuff that goes with having chemo, you cannot comprehend it. As a supporter, don’t expect to and be truthful with yourself about that. You may see and appreciate the physical effects but it’s not the whole package.
When I had a bad day and felt I was in a deep dark hole, I was grateful for a special friend who knew that all he could offer was the silent comfort of a shoulder or hug. There were times when nothing he could say would give solace but he sat there with me in my anguish and allowed me to just be with it all. He was being truthful about the situation. I have cancer and it’s shit.
It’s uncomfortable to accept cancer’s harsh reality. Sometimes, the best you can do is listen and be present. Don’t feel obligated to offer advice. If you simply cannot help yourself, offer to tell the news of your life – at least it’s real and relatable. I know these stories helped me remember there’s life outside of cancer.
My perspective: Loosen the reigns on the value we learned as children that telling the truth is best. Sometimes it’s better not to – when it’s out of compassion for another.