'Never treat a patient as if they are dying'

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 09:43 23/08/2014
cancer
KENT BLECHYNDEN/FAIRFAX NZ

The C word: Wellington design student Lauren Wepa hopes her how-to book on dealing with cancer helps ‘‘us remain part of society, not isolated’’.

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When Lauren Wepa was fighting cancer, it was people, not the disease who were her biggest struggle.

Now the 22-year-old Wellington design student is writing an illustrated how-to guide on dealing with the subject.

The book, Cancer and Other Shit, is not for cancer patients but for their friends, family and even strangers, who often say all the wrong things at the wrong time.

She is illustrating the book with images from her treatment, including X-rays of the cancer invading her body.

"When I started it was pretty angry and cynical," she said. "Pretty much telling people off, and then I toned it down a bit because you still want people to help out."

Wepa was diagnosed with non- Hodgkin's lymphoma on February 9 last year, forcing her to abandon her final year studying design in Auckland and return home to Rotorua for a life of radiotherapy, cancer drugs and surgery.

She is now in remission and moved to Wellington this year to finish her study.

But even with the cancer gone - fingers crossed - she has found dealing with its social impact a continuous struggle. People often avoided the word "cancer", struggled to talk to her at all and, if they did, treated her fate as a foregone conclusion.

"With today's technology . . . a lot more people are surviving. Never treat a patient as if they are dying . . ."

When she told her close friends about the diagnosis, some of them took more than a month to return her messages, confessing they delayed because they just didn't know what to say.

On one occasion, she was turned away from a bar for wearing sunglasses to protect her light-sensitive eyes.

When she moved to Wellington, many of her fellow students did not know she had had cancer until she was forced to announce plans for the book.

"You can't just go up to someone and say, 'I have cancer'. That is a big thing to put on someone."

Wepa said she hoped the book would help society to engage more with people with cancer, and even laugh about it.

"I hope this book will break that down and help us remain part of society, not isolated."

The book will be available as an e-book initially through the Cancer Society, with Wepa hoping to have it available by Daffodil Day on August 29.

CANCER ETIQUETTE

Don't tell a cancer patient they are "brave". Bravery implies choice, but no-one chooses cancer.

Don't apologise for someone's cancer. It's cancer's fault, not yours.

Don't say, "but you look so good". Looking good isn't the same as feeling good. Such comments can make a patient or survivor feel misunderstood and isolated.

Cancer does not affect people's sense of humour. Jokes, even about cancer, are welcome and often warmly appreciated.

If you feel awkward talking about cancer, just say so rather than remaining silent or breaking off contact.

"Cancer" is not a banned word or a secret. Say it as much as you like, no-one will be offended.

From Cancer and Other Shit, by Lauren Wepa

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