Elaine Waples

Elaine Waples, Artist, writer,& cancer patient

I’ve come to believe that seriously sick people are often subject to some very interesting comments from well-intentioned non-sick people. They are frequently inspired by platitudes from self-help-books, Google chat rooms (heaven forbid), or beliefs that have been around for so long that they are a natural part of common discourse.

To be fair, when we are confronted with the uncomfortable task of talking to a sick person, our conversation can easily become a pre-programmed response that make us feel better for having said something uplifting, positive, sympathetic, or socially acceptable. It’s antiphonal, like the “god bless you” after someone sneezes.

And, for the record, I have probably said every single one of them myself at one time or another.

But as the recipient of them after my diagnosis and subsequent chemotherapy for metastatic primary peritoneal cancer, I felt like I was listening to some foreign language. I have even questioned if I really said some of those things that now make me feel like Charlie Brown listening to his mother’s distorted ..wah,..wah…wah…

I’ve heard excited reports from people who said they knew a person who had exactly (strong emphasis on “exactly”) what I have and “she’s been just fine for 20 years.”

There was nutritional advice about macro biotic foods and nutrient packed pills proven to boost my immune system, heal the cancer, and prevent a recurrence.

There were definitive cries that a cure is right around the corner and the admonishments to “hang in there” because I can “beat this.”

And finally, the joyous observation that I possess a great attitude and, “after all, attitude is half the battle.”

I have smiled through them all, gritted my teeth and saved my complaints for my long suffering spouse. He hears them at night as I cook. With frying pan in one hand and waving wooden spoon in the other, I rant. It usually goes something like this.

A person who had exactly what I have? Really? You know a person with the identical genetic makeup, DNA mutations, family and medical history, blood type, allergies, and stress levels as me? I don’t think so!

Slimy green smoothies that taste like mud for breakfast every morning? Or bazooka sized pills that are sold on-line, packaged in a foreign country, and advertised with teeny tiny print that mentions a lack of FDA approval or clinical data will save me? No!

And, a battle? Do I look like I’m wearing boxing gloves and a helmet? What if I don’t “beat it”? Am I a failure? The cure around the corner? Haven’t they read about the decades of efforts by scientists who have been barking up most of the trees in the forest only to find out they were wrong?

But the last one has always been the toughest. Attitude! According to most people, my good attitude is “half the battle”.

“So, let me get this straight.” (I say this with the help of an air-jabbing spoon.)“Fifty percent is surgery, chemotherapy, needles, blood draws, hair loss, fatigue, digestive nightmares and the other half is attitude? What about the people walking around with rotten attitudes who smoke and eat corn dogs? They are just fine.”

It has taken a few months (hmmm, maybe two years) to reconcile myself with all this. Especially that last one. I have to admit that it took time for me to get grounded in the attitude thing. It also helped to have my husband’s good counsel, usually in the form of “honey, c’mon…knock it off”.

It’s really so simple that there should be a lightning bolt hanging over my head to remind me that attitude isn’t about what’s happened to me. Its all about how I handle what’s happened to me.

It helps to remember that the flag wavers of hope and advice are well meaning people. They care about me and they want desperately to offer some contribution to my staying power. When they tell me I look great and they are glad to see that I’m back to my old self, they mean it. I believe they also know the unspoken truths, like sometimes I really don’t feel well, that ongoing treatments are miserable, that this is remission only and that there is real worry about my future.

But it is important for me to smile and say “I’m doing just fine.” It is the right thing for that moment. It makes life OK, and normal, and sociable, and happy. It helps people believe that I’m strong and intrepid and maybe their advice and anecdotes encourage me to have faith. It helps me to see the joy and pleasure on their faces when I say “thanks, I’m good.” For my doctor, despite the fact that he knows the odds, it lets him know that I’m OK that day.

For my husband, who always knows the truth about me, it is sustains the laughter, jokes, honest talk, patience and tolerance that makes us say we have never been happier.

I hope it’s a good “attitude.”

Elaine Waples is a 27-month cancer survivor surviving with her long-suffering husband Brian Klepper in the beautiful beach community of Atlantic Beach, FL . She paints, does yoga and strives to have a good attitude.

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Brian Klepper PHD is a health care analyst, commentator, adviser and entrepreneur, focused on approaches that demonstrably drive down cost while improving quality. He is an active author and speaker, and has provided health care commentary to CBS Evening News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. He has published articles on Kaiser Health News, Medscape, Healthleaders, The New England Journal of Medicine, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, and newspapers nationally.


  1. What a lovely post!
    The part about attitude and about how people say the dumbest things (I am a guilty party myself) made me think about two books written by my late friend Monique Doyle Spencer about her 10 year breast cancer ordeal. Monique was a VERY funny person (even before she got cancer, I am told, though I didn’t know her then), and so are the books:

    The Courage Muscle: A chicken’s guide to living with breast cancer

    How Can I help? Everyday ways to help your loved ones live with Cancer. Written with Paul Levy.

  2. Beautifully written, Elaine, and it reminds me of similar work done for four-time cancer survivor (treatment of a youthful cancer led to others later) Jessie Gruman of the Center for the Advancement of Health in her blog on her website ( and in her extraordinary book, “AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You–Or Someone You Love–a Devastating Diagnosis.” (The books noted above also look terrific.”

    Building on that, I think it would helpful for you to tell us what TO say. After all, if too many words of encouragement and hope ring false, I’m also thinking that, “I can’t believe you started reading a novel that long” probably isn’t a terrific idea, either.

  3. I remember the story of when Christopher Reeves fell off that horse and broke his spine and, as he lay in his hospital bed unable to move or breath, Robin Williams burst in and tried to make him laugh. People told the story of how heartwarming it was, but I can’t imagine anything more horrific or unwelcome. Sometimes people just think it’s their duty to cheer you up, but obviously in your case it’s very unwelcome. Like Patch Adams.