The Etiquette of Cancer


“How are you?’

It’s an innocent enough question, but one I’ve come to dread.

Here’s the problem. After six months of being in the cancer club, I’m starting to loose track of who I have told and who I haven’t. It’s not that I’ve made any great secret of the fact, quite the opposite. In most respects the more people who know the easier it is for me, but it’s really not that much fun telling people. Particularly people I know and like. I suppose I’ve been a bit lazy and relied on word of mouth. Bad news usually travels pretty fast in my experience.And lets face it, you are a bunch of gossips.

So here’s the thing.

When someone says “How are you?” I’m not sure if they’re really saying:

“Hi, I heard all about the (whispered) ‘you-know-what.’ Dreadful business. How’s the treatment going? How’s the family holding up? Where does it hurt? What’s chemo like? Can I see your scar? How come your hair hasn’t fallen out? Is there anything I can do? etc. etc.”


“How are you? By the way before you launch into a lengthy and potentially embarrassing answer, can I just point out that this is an entirely rhetorical question, I am blissfully unaware of your current medical predicament, and frankly only ask because it is the socially accepted way to greet someone I haven’t seen for a while. I have no real interest in the minutia of your probably tedious and uneventful life, so why don’t you just say “Mustn’t grumble” and reciprocate by asking about my wife and kids, and where we went for the summer holiday.”

You see the problem?

The potential for awkwardness here is considerable. Do they know or don’t they? Are they just not mentioning the elephant in the room out of politeness, or because the haven’t spotted it yet?

To take the easy way out – “Never been better thanks!” seems disingenuous, and rather goes against the grain. On the other hand just blurting out “Fine thanks. Apart from the small matter of the Stage Four Eosophigal Cancer that could put me in the ground any day now. What ‘you driving these days?” seems crass and rude.

Actually I did say that just the once. I’m not proud of it. It was at a party, and it was to someone who I don’t particularly like, who was drunk and just wouldn’t shut up. So when he finally stopped talking about his tawdry, awful life, took a breath and another swig of his Bacardi Breezer and enquired after mine. I told him straight. It certainly shut him up, but using my disease as a weapon was a low trick. I’ve resolved never to do it again.

So, what to do?

Well I find the pre-emptive strike works well. “Hi! How are YOU?”

“Absolutely bloody terrible. Life is hardly worth living?”

(In a cocerned tone.) “Really? I’m very sorry to hear that. Has one of your major organs failed? Has your homeland been overun with fundamentalist Islamic extremists? Or maybe one of your children has a crack habbit and joined the Mongrel Mob? Don’t tell me you picked up Necrotizing Faciitis from a dirty teaspoon?”

“No but the traffic on the bridge was an absolute bitch. Forty-five minutes to get to the city off-ramp. Some wanker spilt coffee on my Armani shirt, and I’ve lost the key to my locker at the gym.”

“Oh! you poor lamb. I see what you mean. How do you go on? Life can deal us some cruel blows sometimes can’t it? What you need is a nice cup of tea and a lie down.”

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  1. will atkinson says:

    Is that a crack habit or a crack hobbit?Whilst sadly I thunk you meant the former wouldn’t the latter be brilliant. A kind of SAS ninja type Hobbit – serious psychopathic tendencies lurking just below the surface of this benign PORG (Person of Restricted Growth). I say let him keep the goddamn ring, let’s go fuck with someone less serious. Like Darth Veda…or Begbi out of Trainspotting….goodness is that the time already?

    • Linds says:

      Don’t mock the afflicted you insensitive callous bastard. And just for the record, in an eight word sentence my spell checker picked up four spelling mistakes…

  2. Jack Wyper says:

    I reckon you should settle for the ‘crass and rude’ option and follow the Evelyn Waugh dictum;

    “Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything.”

    (assuming you’ve still got your hair Linds!)


    • Linds says:

      Jack! How great to hear from you. I’ve often thought about you, and wondered what you are up to. Drop me an email, I’d love to hear your news. As for my boyish good looks, well, yes the hair is hanging in there against all the predictions, although it has gone mostly white. Everything else has pretty much gone to pot. Apart from my legs apparently. Jo says I have the legs of a twenty year old on the body of a fifty year old. Go figure…

  3. “Have you heard about Mel Blanch? She got caught in avalanche?”
    “Got up – finished fourth”
    “Game Girl”
    “What a swell party this is…”
    (from memory don’t quote me).*

    Linds, I wonder if this post might fall under the heading of Passive Aggression.
    Have you fallen into the limbo of the disease? It’s not novel anymore.

    Those that matter to you know – and, despite their unabated love for you and concern for your wellbeing and hope for your being present amongst us – still have their own existence to get on with.

    When I was sick I rather enjoyed the attention. Not morbidly. It was just nice to kick back and be fed something akin to airline food (rather enjoy airline mystery food – it means I am in the hands of the gods – or at least, if I am lucky a cute member of the cabin crew during my Osaka lay-over). The parallel is that sometimes things are just out of our hands. Maybe things are always out of our hands?

    But the psychological pain you feel – consciousness of your mortality – rather than physical pain – is, perhaps, just an exaggeration of the human condition. We are, we think, the only species that projects ourselves forward and imagines our end. Who hasn’t thought about which song we would like our mortal remains to be interred to? I have (Currently thinking To Drunk To Fuck by The Dead Kennedys. But next week, or in an hour I am certain it might swing to something a little more Velvet Underground).

    Waking up with a breath in the morning (or afternoon if, as I am, you are prone to cat napping – dislike the expression ‘nana-nap’) then it is all good.

    Chemo is interchangeable with bills to pay that you cant.

    If I wasn’t atheist I would allude to crosses to bear.

    But I am atheist. So I promote the idea that this is it.

    This is it.

    You are in heaven my friend.

    Your circs are a pain, though you don’t complain of physical pain.

    Quoting the Pythons – Always look on the bright side of life.

    We’re all of us dying of something.

    For me the worst diagnosis would be either “I’m sorry Mr MacGregor, but you have cynicism – or boredom”. Worse still – “David – you’re 110 – time to fuck off”

    Cheer up mate.

    Every day above ground is a good one.

    *at a glance – triggered that song

  4. It’s a very ‘English’ dilemma, I think. Cancer or not, a really truthful answer to the question ‘How are you?’ would often be too intimate for most circumstances and yet we persist in the custom. Maybe you should come to Germany. Being a sensible bunch and given their penchant for accuracy and correctness, for the sake of everyone’s convenience, the question is usually bypassed completely or replaced by a more neutral (though also kinda scarily demanding) ‘Well?!’
    Here, people only ask ‘how are you?’ when a. they have lots of free time on their hands, or b. when they really want to know.
    In any case, your answer is a showstopper, Linds. I am not sure I would’ve coped immediately well if you’d told me face to face. But I guess that’s normal. The words fail us.

  5. Lawrence says:


    I read your essay about the perspective you’ve gained looking back on your advertising career here:

    Thank you. I find that it reflects my own experience, minus the tumor.

    I’m forwarding the article and link to your blog to a friend who teaches commercial production at a film school here in the US, hoping that it will help his students accelerate the process of acquiring wisdom. It won’t, but it will make me feel better for spreading your words.

    And not to wish ill toward someone close to you, but I hope your tumor realizes what an insufferable ass it is and commits suicide, giving you more time to post about other subjects.

    Walk with the gods, Lindsey.


  6. Christine,
    I like the idea and irony of ‘Well?’.

    If it’s going to be – it’s up to me.

  7. Kenny Harris says:

    Hi Lindsey. I saw your “perspective” blog via Mark Gorman on FB. Saw it was you, and thought “Lindsey Bloody Redding! I wonder how he is?”.

    Well, I’ve just read the rest of your blog, and now I know. So I won’t ask the obvious question referred to above.

    Stunned, and not only because of the quality of writing and the courage and gloriously black humour.

    We seem to have arrived at that time in life when we no longer hear new of heart attacks/strokes/cancer happening to friends’ parents, but rather to friends themselves – or indeed ourselves.

    It’s such a long time since we saw you and yours, although from your pic above, I suspect I’d still recognise you if you walked into the room. You’d recognise me too – think of me in the eighties, but eight stone heavier.

    Love and best wishes mate – and also from Diane.


    • Linds says:

      How great to hear from you Kenny! What I know about black humor I picked up during my time in Scotland, and people like you in particular. Your also directly responsible for my Tom Waits dependency. You played Swordfish Trombones to me one night at your apartment. It all started from there. Delighted to hear that you and the lovely Diane are still together. Love to hear your news. What are you up to these days?

      • Kenny Harris says:

        Hey Linds (Linds? Linds? When did your name become Linds?).

        I am indeed still with the lovely Diane. She’s still lovely, me significantly less so.

        As you surmised, I’m mostly into the old speaking lark these days, hauling my ass on to conference platforms or seminar rooms – wherever I can find a paying audience. My blah blah blah is all about creative thinking – years of watching and learning from people like your own good self and others, and then the stuff I picked up working as a stand-up. It a lot of fun, and gets me about here and there and indeed, hither and thither.

        So I may to blame for your love of the gravel-voiced troubadour Mr Waits, but you and others like you are to blame for what I do now!

        So sad to hear you’re not well, but great to be back in touch after so long.

  8. I saw someone post this information on Facebook the other day. After reading, A Short Lesson in Perspective, (very moving) I thought this may be of interest for you.

    The Sour Sop or the fruit from the graviola tree is a miraculous natural cancer cell killer 10,000 times stronger than Chemo.

    Research shows that with extracts from this miraculous tree it now may be possible to:
    * Attack cancer safely and effectively with an all-natural therapy that does not cause extreme nausea, weight loss and hair loss
    * Protect your immune system and avoid deadly infections
    * Feel stronger and healthier throughout the course of the treatment
    * Boost your energy and improve your outlook on life

    The source of this information is just as stunning: It comes from one of America ‘s largest drug manufacturers, th! e fruit of over 20 laboratory tests conducted since the 1970′s! What those tests revealed was nothing short of mind numbing… Extracts from the tree were shown to:

    * Effectively target and kill malignant cells in 12 types of cancer, including colon, breast, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancer..
    * The tree compounds proved to be up to 10,000 times stronger in slowing the growth of cancer cells than Adriamycin, a commonly used chemotherapeutic drug!
    * What’s more, unlike chemotherapy, the compound extracted from the Graviola tree selectivelyhunts
    down and kills only cancer cells.. It does not harm healthy cells!

    The amazing anti-cancer properties of the Graviola tree have been extensively researched–so why haven’t you heard anything about it? If Graviola extract is

    One of America ‘s biggest billion-dollar drug makers began a search for a cancer cure and their research centered on Graviola, a legendary healing tree from the Amazon Rainforest.

    Various parts of the Graviola tree–including the bark, leaves, roots, fruit and fruit-seeds–have been used for centuries by medicine men and native Indi! ans in S outh America to treat heart disease, asthma, liver problems and arthritis. Going on very little documented scientific evidence, the company poured money and resources into testing the tree’s anti-cancerous properties–and were shocked by the results. Graviola proved itself to be a cancer-killing dynamo.
    But that’s where the Graviola story nearly ended.

    The company had one huge problem with the Graviola tree–it’s completely natural, and so, under federal law, not patentable. There’s no way to make serious profits from it.

    It turns out the drug company invested nearly seven years trying to synthesize two of the Graviola tree’s most powerful anti-cancer ingredients. If they could isolate and produce man-made clones of what makes the Graviola so potent, they’d be able to patent it and make their money back. Alas, they hit a brick wall. The original simply could not be replicated. There was no way the company could protect its profits–or even make back the millions it poured into research.

    As the dream of huge profits evaporated, their testing on Graviola came to a screeching halt. Even worse, the company shelved the entire project and chose not to publish the findings of its research!

    Luckily, however, there was one scientist from the Graviola research team whose conscience wouldn’t let him see such atrocity committed. Risking his career, he contacted a company that’s dedicated to harvesting medical plants from the Amazon Rainforest and blew the whistle.

    Miracle unleashed
    When researchers at the Health Sciences Institute were alerted to the news of Graviola,! they be gan tracking the research done on the cancer-killing tree. Evidence of the astounding effectiveness of Graviola–and its shocking cover-up–came in fast and furious….

    ….The National Cancer Institute performed the first scientific research in 1976. The results showed that Graviola’s “leaves and stems were found effective in attacking and destroying malignant cells.” Inexplicably, the results were published in an internal report and never released to the public…

    ….Since 1976, Graviola has proven to be an immensely potent cancer killer in 20 independent laboratory tests, yet no double-blind clinical trials–the typical benchmark mainstream doctors and journals use to judge a treatment’s value–were ever initiated….

    ….A study published in the Journal of Natural Products, following a recent study conducted at Catholic University of South Korea stated that one chemical in Graviola was found to selectively kill colon cancer cells at “10,000 times the potency of (the commonly used chemotherapy drug) Adriamycin…”

    ….The most significant part of the Catholic University of South Korea report is that Graviola was shown to selectively target the cancer cells, leaving healthy cells untouched. Unlike chemotherapy, which indiscriminately targets all actively reproducing cells (such as stomach and hair cells), causing the often devastating side effects of nausea and hair loss in cancer patients.

    …A study at Purdue University recently found that leaves from the Graviola tree killed cancer cells among six human cell lines and were especially effective against prostate, pancreatic and lung cancers…. Seven years of silence broken–it’s finally here!

    I have no idea if this is true or not, I have never tired or heard of anyone trying it. And the way it is written sounds to good to be true. But if it was me I would probably check into it some more.


  9. says:

    Hi Lindsey,

    I came here after reading the perspective post, which is flying around twitterdom at pace right now. That post was brilliant, funny, impactful, and that’s before realisation of what you are going through. I’ve just spent the last hour or so reading your blog from the start. It made me cry a bit, and laugh a lot. It also made me proud, which is probably rubbish, but your ability to laugh through this fight just makes me proud… of you (weirdly as I don’t know you) but also proud of us all, humans. We’re an amazing bunch of buggers.

    Getting back to that perspective post, as a designer myself it rings very true, the pace at which we produce, and are forced to do so is ridiculous. So you are definitely right about that. You are however bloody wrong about cricket.

    Best wishes,


  10. KR says:

    I came here after reading the perspectives post, too. I’m in advertising and I had breast cancer. While I have a good prognosis, I can really relate to this specific post, and I think a lot of cancer patients can. (In fact every time I face that “How ARE you?” question I’ve considered writing an essay myself.) Even when I was going through chemo, I didn’t think of cancer every single minute of the day, and this jarring question always pissed me off because I’d just been enjoying some oblivious moment …. and then someone HAD to remind me I might die soon. Thanks! Five years later, I still have acquaintances come up to me at parties with big eyes and trembling voice. I try to evade their question–“I’m fine! How are YOU?”–but they keep pressing, hint, hint, hint. I think it’s their way of showing they care. (Funny thing, though, it’s usually people I never heard from while I was actually ill.) In contrast, I had one gracious friend who always asked, “How’s your health?” It seemed to me a casual but direct way of showing she cared, with no ambiguity.

  11. Erica May says:

    Found your blog through someone elses, it slips my mind who, but wanted to drop you a line about how relatable I found this post. Even though I’ve been in remission for almost 20 years I’ve been guilty of using the cancer-as-a-low weapon a few times, and it’s still weird when it comes up in conversation with new people “’re….alright….now?”

    I did have a kind of smug satisfaction when a woman uni blasted me for drinking diet coke when “You know you’re going to get cancer?” “You don’t care about getting cancer?” …. “No I’ve already had it once before.”

  12. AM SYU says:

    Have you heard of the Gerson Therapy?
    You should check it out.

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