Marion Witte

March 30, 2014

Wellness – Part 3 – A Short Course in Cancer Etiquette

Filed under: Wellness — Marion Witte @ 12:00 am

Cancer Etiquette

When someone you know has cancer, please understand that it is safe to say that word out loud.  Try saying it – CANCER.  You won’t catch it by verbalizing it. And you won’t catch it by having a conversation with someone who has it. And if breast cancer is the illness being dealt with,  you can say the word breast – you won’t get your mouth washed out with soap!

There is no Cancer Book of Etiquette which describes the best way to talk to a friend or relative who is dealing with this illness.  Because of that, I would like to share some of my personal experiences and observations, in the hope it may help anyone who is faced with this situation now or in the future.

Some folks didn’t know what to say when they are informed about someone else’s cancer diagnosis, as at first the news catches them off guard.  For others, their own fears set in, probably about what is going to happen to their friend or relative, and probably how it will impact them.  My dear cousin, Denise, suggested that sometimes not knowing what to say may result from a feeling of guilt for not being the one who has to go through the journey.  In spite of the difficulty of the situation, I have found most people to be very kind and compassionate, and each person handles the situation in a way in which they were comfortable.

As I go through this process, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between what it means to be sympathetic and to be empathic.

Sympathy is the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief or misfortune.

Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

While I believe any statements of care and concern are normally well-intentioned, and usually well-received, the impact on the listener of using a sympathetic approach versus the use of an empathetic approach is quite different.

It has been interesting to observe that many people opt for the sympathetic route, as it tends to skirt around the issue of emotions.  Even if you don’t want “to go there,” you need to understand that the cancer patient is having strong feelings about the situation.  I found that when people were being sympathetic, they would make comments like:

–  Thank God they caught it early.

–  We are blessed to have wonderful medical care in our community.

–  You are lucky you have good insurance.

–  At least it’s your breasts and not another organ.

While the above statements reflect a level of compassion, they didn’t really address the underlying emotions that I was experiencing during this time.  In fact, the one about “at least it’s your breasts” left me thinking, “As opposed to what?”

For me, the empathetic responses I received just “felt” better, and they established a relationship of understanding between the speaker and me.  And so, if I were personally going to try and be as empathetic as I could be, I would opt for using one of the following statements, as they are more relatable, and they communicate at an emotional level:

–  What you are going through SUCKS.

–  I can’t believe that would happen to YOU.

–  When I went through this illness myself, I felt (fill in the blanks).

–  It’s OK to be angry (or frustrated or pissed off).

–  Life is NOT fair.

And so my friends, if you know someone who is dealing with cancer, I suggest you offer a small dose of sympathy, and a large portion of empathy.  It may seem like a matter of semantics, but it really does make a difference in the degree of compassion the listener experiences.

There is also another statement you might consider avoiding.  “If I were you, this is what I would do.”  Although one’s intention is saying this may to be instructive and helpful, if you have never had cancer, you really have no idea what you would do.  And the listener knows that all too well, based on their own compelling personal experience.

Some of the best ways to support someone dealing with cancer, or any other debilitating disease, are:

– Be a good listener to your friend or relative.

– Invite them to share whatever part of the journey they want to with you.

– Support whatever decisions they make or options they choose.

And yeah, it sucks that we have to think about any of this. See how I threw in some empathy there!


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February 22, 2014

Wellness – Part 2 – A Visit to the Hobbits

Filed under: Wellness — Marion Witte @ 4:48 pm

Marion-Mystical New Zealand

Just so we are on the same page, my trip to New Zealand was not a gift from The Make-A-Wish Foundation.  I had it planned well before I was diagnosed with breast cancer!

New Zealand is a magical place, and the South Island of that country is almost mystical. We journeyed to the world-famous Milford Sound in the Fjordland National Forest, traveling through the small towns of Five Rivers, Mossburn, Manapouri and Te Anau. Every turn in the road delivered an incredible new view. Hundreds of miles of magnificent glacial mountain ranges, millions of acres of posh green open farm ranges, breathtaking glacial fjords, subtropical rain forests, a collection of the largest lakes, rivers and waterfalls in one location, and a year-round temperate climate. And baby seals and dolphins to top it all off.

This country is a national treasure, if only based on its sheer beauty and magnitude. When you add in the royal blue skies and the fluffy white clouds, this is one of the most scenic places I have ever visited on my travels.

And while all of this was amazing, there was a place in the southern part of the North Island that left us with an equally magical feeling.  It is the location where parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed – yes, there is a real-life Hobbiton in the Shire. The original movie set has been recreated in exquisite detail as a permanent structure for Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans to visit and photograph.

The tour guide is quick to remind everyone that the structures are facades, and that the characters playing the Hobbits were not filmed in the tiny huts, and that they are always uninhabited. With all due respect, I think she is wrong.  I am pretty sure, at dusk, when are the tourists are gone, the real Little Folk come out to do what they do best – frolic and play.

When I returned home from our journey, I immersed myself into 10 hours of Lord of the Rings, and five hours of The Hobbit.  I was hoping I would discover that I was just like Gandalf the Great, but alas, I think I am not.  Perhaps in my next incarnation.

I am really more like Frodo Baggins. One person taking their own heroic journey, not really understanding what it is all about, yet willing to take on the challenge.  The solution is not always obvious, and the outcome is never certain.  Frodo had to deal with the Dark Lord of Mordor. I have to deal with cancer.

I like what J.R.R. Tolkien said – “Hobbits, although small in size, are sturdy of body, determined in their actions, and capable of the grandest of deeds.”  So now, when I go through periods of uncertainty, fear and not knowing, I go back to New Zealand, in my mind, and think about what Frodo would do.

Marion in Hobbiton

Yeah, I’m a hobbit!


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February 17, 2014

Wellness – Part 1 – What Did you Say Was Wrong?

Filed under: Wellness — Marion Witte @ 12:10 am



Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary. 

Oops – I think that beginning has already been taken.

In November, I was diagnosed with cancer in my left breast.  Yes – me folks.

It takes a while for an announcement like that to sink in, especially when you’ve been told by everyone performing the multiple mammograms and the needle biopsies that there is nothing to worry about.  Then you get “that call” from your doctor, the unfortunate person who has to deliver the blow, with the accompanying apology of “I’m sorry, but it turned out to be cancer.”

The first few days after receiving this news are filled with an assortment of emotions and thoughts – including denial, fear and anger. Throughout angst-filled days and sleepless nights, one tries to absorb all of this, as you wait for the first (of many) doctor’s appointments to come.  Your mind runs wild with possibilities, none of them very favorable.  You think about what you did to cause this.  Was it the food I ate?  Living an unhealthy lifestyle?  Some random gene run amuck? A pathetic cry for attention? Or maybe karma? Yeah, that must be it, Marion. Payback for something I did wrong in a prior lifetime.

You sort through all these possibilities, and in the end, decide that the “why” really doesn’t matter at this stage of the game. You are facing a significant challenge, and it’s time to take charge, get informed and make some rational decisions.

It is a natural progression to take the step that the medical profession hates – you get on the internet.  And after reading what’s online, if you weren’t scared before, you’re convinced it’s time to get your medical power of attorney in place. The web is a wonderful place to obtain information, as long as you temper your search by challenging what you are reading for its authenticity.  I chose to believe, or not believe, the information presented based on the idea that “if it makes sense to me, then it’s right for me.”

I came to learn throughout this process, which I am writing about in this blog series, that we have given away too much power to the disease – and the word – cancer.  Many people speak about it in terms of “how long do I have to live.” Diagnoses of heart disease, diabetes and other debilitating diseases are rendered every day, yet none bear the stigma or fear that cancer does.  I would like to be a part of changing that perception.

And somewhere in the midst of all of this, I asked that question we all ask – why me?  I would talk to God at night (or whoever it is up there listening).  I asked him why it was me that had to go through this, when I had already been through so much in my lifetime. When I was done feeling sorry for myself, I quieted my mind, and I waited.  Then from someplace, either inside or outside of my head, I heard these words.

And why not you, Marion?

I was in no frame of mind for one of these esoteric, spiritual communications from somebody I couldn’t see, and whose existence I now questioned.  Ironically, that message was delivered to me the day after the surgeon I met with said he needed to go in and cut out the tumor in my left breast. Based on what I heard from the Master of the Universe and my surgeon, I had a lot to think about.

So I did what was right for me at the time. I put God’s message on hold (at least for the time being) and I ignored the doctor. Instead of going in for surgery, I decided to go on my dream vacation – Australia and New Zealand.  Yes, I needed to go to the Middle Earth where the Hobbits lived.  Those little guys always died of old age – not cancer.  I wanted to find out what their secret was!

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