The Vine: July 24, 2013
A friend of mine recently died of lung cancer, way too young (late 30s).
She wasn't a smoker (that I know of), and lived a very healthy lifestyle — vegetarian and lots of yoga. I find myself increasingly pissy and snippy when I tell people that she died and their first question is, "Did she smoke?" It seems to be a veiled "Is it her own fault?"
I admit that when I hear about other people having lung cancer, that's the first question that pops into my head, so I can't really fault people for asking — and yet I get more and more irritated every time. I mean, if someone has colon cancer, you don't say, "Well, did they eat enough fiber?" or thyroid cancer: "Did they get a lot of x-rays? Were they around Chernobyl at any time in the last 20 years?" Yeah, I know smoking's bad, blah blah blah, we all know, and we've kind of been trained to ask if a lung-cancer victim is a smoker, but 15% of lung cancer patients never were, and the rate of young non-smoking women getting lung cancer has been on the rise.
So I guess my question is, how do I answer these questions with going off on a rant (see above)? It just pisses me off, the implication that it might have been her own fault, AND this seems to be the only cancer where it's socially acceptable to be judgy about people's personal health habits. Sorry, there I go again. So what should I do? Smile tightly and say, "No"? Just say, "She had lung cancer, and she never smoked" to pre-empt it? Nobody really wants to ask that question and get a pissy educational lecture in return, right?
Rant rant rant
No, they don't. What they want is reassurance that whatever happened to her isn't going to happen to them. What they want is a way to put the information they've just received, that someone died from a terrible disease in her thirties for no real "reason," in a framework that controls it and puts it at a distance from them.
I'm so sorry about your friend, and it must be maddening to feel like there's a "well then she deserved it" lurking unspoken after every one of these questions — and sometimes, there may be, and that sucks. But I suspect that the majority of people just plain don't know what to say, first of all, and this is the closest remark to hand; it's sort of in the witless "at least she didn't suffer" brand of condolence remarks that are meant to fill air, and don't bear close examination.
Second of all…well, I recently rewatched the S3 Sopranos episodes when Junior gets the diagnosis of stomach cancer, and he does and says all these tactlessly nonsensical things — right, "more so than usual" — about the death of Bacala Sr. because he's convinced that "these things" come in threes, and if Bacala Sr. died from lung cancer and not from wrecking his car while coughing crazily from the lung cancer, then he's the third and Junior's cancer "turn" gets skipped. And Bobby Bacala is like, "You're skipping the funeral with this shit?" The parallel won't make sense if you haven't seen it, maybe, but tl;dr: the idea that a woman could just get lung cancer at that age, that this could happen, is terrifying to people, and their first instinct is to make sure that it's not going, or at least unlikely, to happen to them.
Having to inform them that no, it's just bad luck isn't any more welcome a duty for you than it is enjoyable for them to hear, but try to think of these queries in that way — it's not a judgment of your late friend. It's one of the many circles we draw around ourselves and our loved ones to try to keep the herd together as long as we can, even if we know it doesn't really work like that.
It's still painful for you, and that's okay, so I think your best bet is to move away from the subject quickly and gracefully. "She had cancer; I don't want to get into details, I'm sorry." "Lung cancer. …No, just bad luck, I'm afraid. Speaking of which, [news story]." Your instinct to defend your friend is sweet, but don't let it make you bitter; trying to see where dumb comments/snap judgments come from in these situations might help you feel less ranty.