Suffering Goes Beyond Cancer


A patient with pancreatic cancer discusses how far words of kindness can go to individuals dealing with pain and suffering.

Most people have their favorite store. For some it’s Walmart, but for others, it's Macy’s or some other hoity-toity store. For me, it’s one of those home improvement stores, orange or blue, you pick. Something is refreshing about their shelves towering like skyscrapers over acres of bare cement floors. Associates rush around with their radios buzzing while the smell of lumber fills the air, not to mention the hard-earned sweat of guys (and some gals) in steel-toed boots who dart in from a jobsite.

The other day I needed to pick up some stainless spray to spiff up my rather sad-looking gas grill. Knowing the home improvement store would have it, I made a trip to pick some up. Of course, they had four different brands in both spray cans and bottles. After reading the ingredient lists, wanting a spray bottle where I could control how much I put on I picked out what looked like a good product.

Finding an open register, I stood in line to pay for it. It was in a cashier who I’ll call Sally’s line. Fate or chance, I often ended up in her line. Even though she has a 50-50 smile with several missing teeth, she’s one of those people who always smiles even after some cranky customer gives her a hard time about being unable to find a straight 2x4 stud.

On getting up to the register I noticed she was braced up against a crutch (Those of you who have worked as a cashier know how brutal standing all day can be).

Seeing her crutch, I smiled and said, “All you need is a sign, ‘Will work for food.’”

I went on to say, “I admire anyone who does your job, especially leaned up against a crutch. How’s your day?”

Smiling, she said, “Fine. I’m persistent. My son says, ‘You’re stubborn, Mom.’”

Like so many things I see, this reminded me that suffering isn’t limited to cancer and its brutal treatments. People all around us suffer from the everyday maladies of life but for some reason, few pay attention to them or offer any words of encouragement. Is their suffering any less painful than my journey with pancreatic cancer?

My heart went out to her. I wanted to tell her things would be OK. I wondered if her manager was aware of her situation. I wondered if there was some corporate policy against giving her a stool to sit on so she could get off her feet.

Next time you happen upon someone who is suffering, I would encourage you to:

Reach out.

I fear many of us, including me, are afraid to say something or to offer a word of encouragement. We are afraid to offend someone or create a ruckus, so we choose to say nothing. The broken among us – not just those facing cancer – need to hear they matter. That we notice them. That we see their suffering. Reach out.

Do something.

Should I happen upon Sally braced up against her crutch again, although I don’t want to cause a stir, I plan to flag down the store manager and ask, “Can you perhaps get her a stool?” If the manager tells me, “Sorry, it’s against corporate policy,” I will shoot off a letter to the company they would rather not receive. Do something.

Make it a habit to offer kind words.

Offering kind words costs us nothing. Zip. Nada. This is a way for us to extend an invisible helping hand to those who are hurting. There is a popular saying among grade-schoolers, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I would retort, words can and do hurt. But words can also mend. They can and do heal. Make it a habit to offer kind words.

I would encourage all of us to see those all around us who are suffering in plain sight, people like Sally. Much like those of us who are facing active cancer or survived it, they did nothing to deserve their lot in life. By becoming more aware of those around us who are suffering, perhaps we can reach out, do something, and make it a habit to offer kind words.

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