When I got cancer, all of my acquaintances turned into automatons. Everyone I had zero-to-low degrees of social contact with started reaching out, saying the exact same thing: “If you need to talk to someone, I’m here for you”. No matter how tenuous the connection, people pledged their emotional support — including my father’s wife’s mother, who I met a few hours every other Christmas.

It was only a bit of testicle cancer — what’s the big deal? No Swedish person had died from it for 20 years, and the risk of metastasis was below 1%. I settled in for a few months of suck — surgical ball removal and chemotherapy.

My friends, who knew me well, opted to support me with dark humour. When I told my satanist roommate that I had a ball tumour, he offered to “pop” it for me — it works for pimples, right? To me, this response was pure gold, much better than being met with shallow displays of performative pity.

None of the acquaintances asked me what I wanted. They didn’t ask me how I felt. They all settled for a socially appropriate script, chasing me like a hoard of vaguely condescending zombies.


A Difference in Value Judgements

Here’s my best guess at the origins of their pity:

  1. A person hears that I have a case of the ball cancer
  2. This makes the person concerned — cancer is Very Bad, and if you have it you are a victim future survivor.
  3. The person feels a social obligation to be there for me “in my moment of weakness”, and offer support in a way that is supposed to be as non-intrusive as possible.

Being a Stoic, I rejected the assumption in step #2 as an invalid value judgement. The tumor in my ball didn’t mean I was in hardship. The itch after chemotherapy sucked ball(s), and my nausea made it impossible to enjoy the mountains of chocolate people gifted.

These hardships were mild, in the grander scheme of things. I consciously didn’t turn them into a Traumatic Event, something Very Bad, or any such nonsense. I had fun by ridiculing the entire situation, waiting it out while asking the doctors questions like:

  • Can identical twin brothers transmit testicle cancer through sodomy?
  • Can I keep my surgically removed ball? (For storing in a jar of formaldehyde)
  • Does hair loss from chemotherapy proceed in the same stages as male pattern baldness?



I was greatly annoyed at the people who made a Big Deal out of the situation, “inventing” a hardship out of a situation that merely sucked. Other people’s pity didn’t in any way reflect on my personal experience. I didn’t play along and ended up saying things like: “Thanks, but I have friends I can talk to if I need it”.

Nowadays, I might have handled it more gracefully — but part of me is glad I didn’t. It’s not up to the person with cancer to handle other people’s reactions. I find pity and “hardshipification” detestable — adding culturally anchored value judgements to a situation that’s already tricky to navigate.

This extends beyond cancer, applying to things like rape, racism, death of loved ones, breakups and similar. It’s impossible to know how someone reacts to things like this. Some of them might have culturally appropriate reaction patterns, while others might feel very different things.7

Some people don’t feel sad over their recently dead grandma. Maybe grandma was a bitch — you never know. Assuming that they feel sad puts a burden on them — an expectation that they must relate to. They might judge themselves for not feeling sad, dealing with cognitive dissonance while tidying up grandma’s affairs.

I have a friend who got raped, was annoyed and did some breathing exercises to calm down. Convincing her that it was a Big Deal isn’t necessarily a good idea — sometimes people face culturally loaded events without being damaged.

A Better Response

I want to suggest a new response — for the next time someone shares a potentially challenging experience. The question is simple: “What’s that like?”

New Comment
17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I think your response mostly didn't make sense. "What's that like" imposes a greater burden on you by requiring you to explain something again and again, and bluntly, I'm only going to be interested in that if me knowing helps you in some way, and I don't see why it would, but maybe it would, I wouldn't know, so it makes sense for me to just express willingness to help if needed, and that starts with "If you need to talk to someone, I’m here for you".

I get frustrated with imaginary social scripts too, but that part of the script is fine.

I guess it's possible to say both things, and I failed at disambiguating between the content of what was said and the tone. Most people looked at me like I was a beaten dog, offering support in the same ooh-that's-horrible tone people vibe into during charity galas.

I get that it might be a (sub)cultural thing, but I've gotten a lot of appreciation for actually trying to understand the person's situation. Guess vs ask culture maybe?

I guess there's a subcultural aspect in how comfortable people feel with declining to answer questions: In subcultures where people can (or know to) just say "don't worry about it" and people don't get offended by that, questions are free.

But for the most part I think whether people are happy or annoyed with being asked a question comes down to how many times they have been asked. Asked zero times → very happy, like summer rain. Asked 30 times → not so much, but idk maybe you can mitigate the annoyance by copy and pasting something/publishing a statement.

I had fun by ridiculing the entire situation, waiting it out while asking the doctors questions like:

  • Can identical twin brothers transmit testicle cancer through sodomy?
  • Can I keep my surgically removed ball? (For storing in a jar of formaldehyde)
  • Does hair loss from chemotherapy proceed in the same stages as male pattern baldness?

If you were hoping we weren't going to want to know the answers to these questions, I gotta disappoint ya

  1. The medical opinion was that: "That's an inappropriate question". It works for dogs, so why not? :D

  2. "No, we are going to split it up into millimetre sized cubes and analyse it". (They went full hitchhiker's on me.)

  3. "Some people don't lose their hair" (empirically, the answer is "yes")

It seems to me that many even not so close acquaintances may - simply out of genuine concern for a fellow human being that (in their conviction*) seems to be suffering - want to offer support, even if they may be clumsy in it as they're not used to the situation. I find that rather adorable; for once the humans show a bit of humaneness, even if I'd not be surprised if you're right that often it does not bring much (and even if I'd grant that they might do it mostly as long as it doesn't cost them much).

*I guess I'm not in a minority if I didn't know how extremely curable balls cancer apparently is.

I think the post nicely points out how some stoicism can be a sort of superpower in exactly such situations, but I think we should appreciate how the situation looks from the outside for normal humans who don't expect the victim to be as stoically protected as you were.


I find that rather adorable

In principle it is, but I think people do need some self awareness to distinguish between "I wish to help" and "I wish to feel like a person who's helping". The former requires focusing more genuinely on the other, rather than going off a standard societal script. Otherwise, if your desire to help ends up merely forcing the supposedly "helped" person to entertain you, after a while you'll effectively be perceived as a nuisance, good intentions or not.

Fair! Yes. I guess I mainly have issues with the tone in the article, which in turn then makes me fear there's little empathy the other way round: i.e. it's going too strongly in the direction dismissing all superficial care as greedy self-serving display or something, while I find the underlying motivation - however imperfect - is often kind of a nice trait, coming out of genuine care, and it's mainly a lack of understanding (and yes, admittedly some superficiality) of the situation that creates the issue.

The article is party written from a past-me perspective, and I agree that it is a bit harsh. Also, there are multiple things converging to create an expectation mismatch.


Hard agree. People might be traumatised by many things, but you don't really want to convince them they should be traumatised, or define their identity about trauma (and then possibly insist that if they swear up and down they aren't that just means they're really repressing or not admitting - this has happened to me). That only increases the suffering! If they're not traumatised, great - they dodged a bullet! It doesn't mean that e.g. sex assault is less bad - the same way shooting someone isn't any less bad just because you happened to miss their vital organs (ok, so actually the funny thing is I guess that attempted murder is punished less than actual murder... but morally speaking, I'd say how good a shot you are has no relevance).

My first guess is that there's a certain subpopulation for whom, if you treat their problems casually, joke about them, etc., then they'll get offended or hurt and cry while pointing a finger at you (perhaps literally), and thereby bring a bunch of social opprobrium upon you; and the acquaintances don't know enough to distinguish you from that subpopulation, and therefore treat you as though you might be one of them.  It's a "safe" strategy they're following; the cost to them if they're wrong is relatively small, compared to the cost to them making the opposite error.  (And perhaps they've done that all their life and don't have any practice joking about rough problems.)

(Take all guesses I make, about people I don't understand, with a big grain of salt.)

Well for the dark humour side of things...A surgical ward in UK for guys with testicular cancer was named "The lonely ballroom"

I think the standard messages are actually more energy efficient. Bad things happen, usually people are fine, but sometimes they need support and these messages signal that support is available. If you’re fine, they’re slightly annoying, but if you’re not fine, they’re helpful.

Your suggested approach actually requires more effort from both people in a typical case. If I were fine, I would rather receive “If you need to talk to someone, I’m here for you” than “What’s that like?” because I could answer the first message with an easy cliche, but I would have to think to answer the second.

(This is assuming you don’t know the person well. For close friends you can customize to their personality, but not everyone is a stoic rationalist.)

See my response to mako yass :)

I didn’t play along and ended up saying things like: “Thanks, but I have friends I can talk to if I need it”.

Do you think the default thing to say in these cases should assume you have any friends period, or any "friends" you are willing to speak to?


I mean, if a mere acquaintance told me something like that I don't know what I'd say, but it wouldn't be an offer to "talk about it" right away - I wouldn't feel like I'd enjoy talking about it with a near stranger, so I'd expect the same applies to them. It's one of those prefab reactions that don't really hold much water upon close scrutiny.

I agree with those who are surprised that you are offended by this relatively innocuous part of the social script. However, it is also a useful lesson for me personally: my social skills aren’t great, so, even more than others, I usually drift along social situations by saying, more or less "ow, I’d hate that if I were you", "whoa, I find that thing you just said really interesting!", and then the conversation stalls because I don’t say anything else, or I add in my own anecdote and then it stalls, or the other person acknowledges that I said I was here for them and then the conversation stalls awkwardly, as in the specific case you described. And so, once more, I see someone (you, in this case), telling me that the way to make interesting conversations is to ask the other person to speak, in some form or another ("and how does that feel?", "tell me more", "nice, and you?", etc.). It should be obvious advice, but — as you show — I’m not the only one for whom it doesn’t always seem obvious or easy. Anyway, my point is, I should do that more often, thanks for the reminder!