In the past, when I’ve talked about “The Cancer Card,” I’ve done so jokingly, as in “pulling the Cancer Card” when you’re pulled over for a traffic infraction.

“Oh, Officer, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice that stop sign! I have [sniff] cancer.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” coos the officer, “You just go on now, but next time be more careful.”

Today I’m talking about a different kind of “Cancer Card” – a line of greeting cards just for people with cancer. Hallmark rolled out such a line a couple of years ago. I was thrilled to learn of it; I’d dreamed of producing such cards myself, because typical “Get Well” cards, though compassionate, don’t address some of the issues specific to cancer, issues which warrant acknowledgment.

Excerpts from a few of the cards:

“Cancer is not who you are--it's what's happening to you. . .”
“You know what cancer is? A big sneaky bully that always throws the first punch. . .”
“Don’t look at it as having one more treatment, look at it as having one less treatment (and that’s good news!). .

I think the concept is great – though I disagree with some of the copy, and that last copy makes me want to say, “Don’t tell me what to say!” and brings to mind the statement from Help Me Live…, “Telling me to think positively can make me feel worse.”

But not everyone likes the cards. Recently the NBC’s Today Show raised a very interesting question in a segment, “Do Cancer Cards Go Too Far?” Guest Steve Adubato, a media analyst and author of a book on corporate crisis communications, believes that Hallmark should not have launched the card line, that people should know or take the time to figure out what to write to a cancer patient, and not depend on a canned message. “[Finding the words] is supposed to be difficult, it’s supposed to be awkward…”

I’ve been critical of “Hallmark Holidays” – the commercialization of compassion and resulting exploitation – and I've been critical of certain messages on greeting cards, like "Call me if you need anything." But I have never, in my more than five years of researching and writing about what helps, what hurts, and what heals people with cancer, heard anyone say they don’t appreciate receiving a greeting card, no matter what the message.

Don’t get me wrong: I would absolutely LOVE it if people would take the time to really think about what to write, what to say, what to do, if everyone had a great capacity for emotional empathy. But not everyone does, even if they’re good, loving people. That’s why I wrote my book, and why I write and speak about this today. And why I support any product that helps people navigate these murky, often terrifying waters.

Greeting cards say for us what we are not comfortable or able to say, ourselves. And they formalize the message and add lovely artwork. Cards represent a small (not so small anymore, costing usually $2.95 and up) gift, a symbol of love that can be kept and re-read, and a gift most people rendered battered and vulnerable by cancer deeply appreciate and remember. I still have the pile of cards I got when I had cancer, and every once in a while, I read them and glow.

I also need to share with you something I’m a little embarrassed to admit. Even though I’m a writer and pride myself on my ability to express my feelings honestly, articulately, and lovingly, I sometimes purchase greeting cards with sentimental and even cheesy messages. I just sent one to our son, Brett, a gifted writer, and someone who I imagine eschews Hallmark messages (he would not tell me so for fear of hurting my feelings).

But here’s what I do: I buy a card, and also write my own message. So the recipient gets the best (or worst) of both worlds.

What do you think? You can see the Today Show story by clicking here. Is this guy right? Is there a legitimate controversy here? Whether there is or not, I’m grateful that mainstream media at least examined the topic, and hopefully got people talking about it.

Always hope,

This post originally appeared on Hope's CarePages blog, "Hope for Cancer: what helps. what hurts. what heals."

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