Playing the Cancer Card


One of the methods my wife and I developed to ward of the cynicism that comes when faced with such an unrelenting foe is something we call "playing the cancer card."

“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” — Richard Bach

Let’s face it, there are very few good things that come with a cancer diagnosis. In fact, the effort to turn the sour lemon of this diagnosis into anything that even remotely resembles lemonade requires a Herculean effort and/or a touch of the miraculous.

One of the methods my wife and I developed toward of the cynicism that comes when faced with such an unrelenting foe is something we call “playing the cancer card.” Playing the cancer card, PCC to us insiders, is simply introducing the fact that one is going through, or has gone through, the cancer experience at a time when it seems to be in one’s interest to do so. This should not be confused with taking advantage of the kindness of others. Instead, what we’re doing is allowing others to express their genuine concern and caring and, in return, gaining the heartfelt sense of having done a good deed. It’s truly a win-win— a rare occurrence in the cancer world.

During active treatment, the cancer card actually plays itself. I paid for 0 meals while going through chemo and radiation therapies. I assume that friends were just so happy to see that I still had an appetite, despite not being able to taste most of what I was eating and, during the worst of the esophagitis, making everything swallowed feel like broken glass, that they were totally eager to donate to the cause. While going through the tell-tale no hair look, it was clear that even passing strangers were kinder, giving up places in line, extending cordial greetings instead of blank stares and even the occasional “stay strong” encouragement.

Once one is out of the treatment woods and the obvious markers of “cancer patient” give way to a healthier survivor glow, PCC is a good tool for keeping the dark thoughts at bay. Used with a sense of playfulness, the subtle, or not so subtle, reminder that one is a member of the cancer club becomes a way to honor what one has been through without turning into the bitter survivor that no one wants to be around.

Personally, I have pulled the cancer card in the following scenarios:

- While public speaking and getting the sense that the audience is growing weary of the topic I’m covering. Very few people will give bad reviews to a speaker who has shared his cancer experience.

- When forgetting an important date involving a close friend or family member. “My bad, I think I was just coming out of chemo fog during that time.”

- When trying to get “street cred” with someone who has been through some really tough life challenges. I was told by a rough-and-tumble client who I had shared my survivorship with, “Where I’m from, you get mad respect for that.”

Like all card games, there are rules for PCC that one should follow so as to not scare away the truly caring people we need as part of our recovery:

1. Never PCC when angry. I tried this once after getting a really bad meal during my active treatment and it took me months to stop feeling like a jerk.

2. Always keep in mind that you may be dealing the cancer card to someone whose life is far more of a train wreck than yours.

3. Let others in on the joke that your use of PCC is really a defense mechanism to ward off the heebie-jeebies that come with cancer.

4. Remember that the Joker is a wildcard in PCC and that not everyone sees the humor in making fun of such a deadly disease.

5. If you’re going to PCC with another cancer survivor, decide ahead of time that it will be a draw and that in the end, we’re all winners.

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