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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?”