Kate Bowler and How to Handle the Worst News of All

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.

Kate: After I got sick, I felt outrage. Why me? I’m a decently good person. Almost everything that was happening to me was totally out of my control, and I needed to get real about that quick.

In my family when we have hard things to talk about, anything, it could be… even death, we’re kind of funny about it because that’s the way we talk, we like to have fun while we’re talking about hard things. But I ran into someone doing this podcast who was given the worst possible news and turned it into a charming, funny insightful book. I think you’ll really enjoy the conversation I had with Kate Bowler.

We talked in our studio in Manhattan. And from the minute she came in, she was bubbling with energy and a really disarming sense of humor. If you hadn’t read her book, you probably wouldn’t know she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I think maybe this was because she’s had to devote a so much time, so much practice, to how she relates to the people around her. And this was true from the first minute she heard about how serious her illness was. It turns out to be really important who tells you and how they explain it to you.

Kate: When I first heard the words, “Stage four cancer,” they gave me the intern. I mean, I was lying in a hospital bed, and this like sweet little basically 12-year old in medicine, with like the shortest coat came by, and he was like, “Hi.”
He looked so nervous, and his nerves made me nervous] and it was 4:00 AM, and I just remember thinking, “Oh buddy. You drew the short straw didn’t you? And they just sent you along to me.” It does make you wish that there was, like the person who knew how to give the talk, is the one that sits you down at the right time, with the right people.
It did really feel almost immediately like I was behind glass, and they were having one experience, and I was having another, and I wasn’t able to like reach across and get them to get down on my level… to look at me, and to like, even just a hand on my arm and say like, “This is what’s happening right now.” Because mostly, it was me looking up words like metastasis, or a tone that I like to call, “Hostage negotiator neutral,” where they’re like, “Ms. Bowler, we understand that you … ” and it’s this like, “I’m managing you,” tone. And I’m on the other side being like, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? You think I’m going to jump.”
Alan: It seems to me that it always boils down to that gown they give you that exposes your rear end. There’s a message in that, that you’re no longer the person you were when you came in with your clothes on. You’re this patient thing. At least that’s the message I get, wearing the gown. They probably don’t intend that message, but the transaction builds out from there, and there’s a bridge that has to be crossed. I’m lying on the gurney, the doctor comes and stands over me. It’s a task for the doctor to make contact with this person who’s already been diminished by just changing clothes.
Alan: You were diagnosed with stage IV cancer, and then at a certain point you found out that there was a trial you could take part in…
Kate: When they gave me my diagnosis, they said, “Well, there’s a 90% chance you just have regular colon cancer, and there’s a 7% chance that you have this anomaly in which the cells will just keep replicating themselves, and that’s a death sentence. There’s nothing there’s no chemo that can keep up with that kind of growth. But there’s a 3% chance that you have this very particular kind of cancer in which it’s a cell replication disorder, but there’s certain kinds of treatment that would be available to you if that were true.”
So it thought, “Oh, I’m definitely the 7%.” It’s just the certain way your brain goes when you’ve gotten the bad news like that. I thought, “I can’t really hope for that 3% where there’s possibilities.” Maybe a couple weeks later I got a phone call, and on my answering machine it was a lovely nurse’s aide that said, “The doctor said to tell you that you have the magic cancer, and you’d know what that is,” which is what I’d called that 3% chance. And so I jumped up and down and screamed. I was like, “I have the magic cancer! I have the magic cancer!”
Alan: That’s like the Larry David thing. You have the good cancer or the bad cancer.
Kate: I definitely had the good kind. ‘Cause then I could enter that clinical trial.
Alan: …and you are in that trial now?
Kate: I was in that trial for a little over a year, and then I stayed on that drug out of the trial. I get scanned every three months that let me know if the tumors are still in check. It’s just like purgatory, I guess.
Alan: Unlike what I had when I almost died in Chile on one really hard night to live through, ‘cos the pain was, I’ve been told, the worst pain you can feel.
And they carted me down a bumpy road an hour and a half to this little town in Chile called La Serena and a really wonderful surgeon figured out almost immediately what was wrong with me. And he communicated to me beautifully. He said, “Here’s what’s happened. Some of your intestine has gone bad, and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.” Isn’t that perfect? That ease he gave me was very important. I wasn’t struggling with what’s going to happen to me. I wasn’t in a panic.
So the difference I think, big difference between what I went through that night, where I did think one of the outcomes would be that I wouldn’t wake up alive. The difference is I just had that for a few minutes. I didn’t have time to reflect on it every morning when I woke up, wondering how long this was going to go on. Am I getting the differences between what we experienced?
Kate: Well, I think there’s a crisis and a chronic management too that happens when you either go through something terrible or people you love do, is they kinda invite different responses. For the crisis, there’s often a very big splash with the people around you, and like everyone’s trying to grapple with the information and the …
Alan: And you have to deal with a lot of different personalities. People with different approaches.
Kate: And medical decisions that have to be made on the fly, it’s very intense. Then there’s the kind of illness in which things can be intense, but it’s so much more drawn out, and then you get different kinds of problems, like people get bored.
Alan: Mm, that’s interesting.
Kate: I get bored of my own suffering.
Alan: Yeah. And you read that in them. You read that boredness, and you’re not entertaining enough for them.
Alan: You’re old news.
Kate: Yeah, I am. I’m old. I recently, it was a couple months ago. I had this really terrible scan and everything looked really bad for me, and thankfully it turned out to be a medical error, but at that time when I was trying to then tell friends and family, “Hey everyone. This does not look good for me,” everyone was struggling to understand that it was an emergency again, because they’re like, “Oh, yeah yeah, yeah. You have stage IV cancer.”
Like “No, no, no, it’s new bad! It more.” It’s like when the volume is turned up really loudly. You’re like, “It’s even louder!” but it was harder for anyone to process. I almost wanted to talk to other people who’ve had chronic illnesses and ask them, “How do you think about managing your illness when it’s no longer news anymore?”
Alan: Your book is called “Everything Happens for a Reason — And Other Lies I’ve Loved”. Did you mean that ironically?
Kate: Yes.
Alan: The love part.
Kate: No. There are lies I have loved.
Alan: Like what?
Kate: Well, I think I thought that I could be the architect of my own life, that I was maybe the exception to the rule that bad things could happen to anybody. I thought that as a hardworking, sometimes shiny person that I could make a way for myself, no matter what the obstacle. I’ve been scrappy at times in my life, so I figured with a little hard work and determination I can figure anything out. Then out of the blue I got stage IV cancer. I found that I had to do some digging in myself and figure out if there were some beautiful delusions that maybe I had been certain of all along.
Alan: That’s interesting. What would be an example of some of the delusions that you had to rethink, I guess?
Kate: Well, I think the first … I’m an expert in the American prosperity gospel, which is this movement that says that God rewards the right kind of faith with health and wealth. I spent a decade traveling around interviewing people in the pews and people behind the pulpit about what they could expect from God. If you’d asked me “Do you believe that?” I would say, “Oh no. No. I’m absolutely not the kind of person who thinks that good things always happen to good people.” Then after I got sick, I felt outrage. Why me? I’m a decently good person.
Alan: “I don’t deserve this.”
Kate: I think I don’t, and I got very … Especially not just for yourself, but you look at all the beautiful things in your life, like my son and my husband, and I thought, “This can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to them. Maybe I could outwork this.” As it turns out, I don’t have that cancer lab in my house. Almost everything that was happening to me was totally out of my control, and I needed to get real about that quick.
Alan: Are you saying that you found that you had actually accepted the idea that you were studying and thought you hadn’t accepted but you had?
Kate: Well, not like I was a convert, like a secret convert to the prosperity gospel, but maybe that there are very common ideas both in myself and in American culture that says that with a pair of bootstraps and some …
Alan: Mm-hm. If you work hard you’ll succeed.
Kate: Yeah. I think even though I’m Canadian, but I was maybe a big believer in the American dream, until everything fell apart.
Right after I got sick I wrote this New York Times article about me trying to grapple with my own prosperity gospel, and I think the point was “Please don’t pour your certainty on my pain.” Sometimes some pain just can’t be explained. I don’t know why this happened.
Alan: “Don’t pour your certainly on my pain.”
Kate: That’s what I was hoping for. Of course, then people thought, “You know, what she needs is more certainty.” I got like five, six thousand emails, pieces of mail, and I-
Alan: Five or six thousand?
Kate: I was just flooded with …
Alan: How many did you read?
Kate: Oh, I was dumb. Also, I didn’t change my work email, which was on the site. I read a lot of them at first, partly ’cause I just felt so bad, ’cause so many people … What they were trying to communicate was, “Yes. My life fell apart too.”
Alan: Mm.
Kate: And also, “Here’s how you can fix it.” The desire to connect with that other person who’s saying, “I get how fragile life is.” But the part that was painful was there’s a lot of intense minimizing. I’ll never forget this older lady wrote to me to say that my stage IV cancer was probably bad, but not as bad as when she found out at 60 that she was adopted! I was like, “What?”
Alan: Oh God. What … Wait a minute. She took the trouble to write you this?
Kate: It was a very long letter handwritten, and I thought, yeah. You know, it’s not just that I think stage IV cancer is a tiny bit rough, but can’t they both be bad?
Alan: It reminds me of Mel Brooks’ definition of the difference between tragedy and comedy.
Kate: Tell me.
Alan: Comedy is when somebody falls into a sewer. Tragedy is when you fall into a sewer.
Kate: Totally! Totally. I think people forgot almost immediately that I wasn’t a voice actor hired to play the part of someone who is suffering, but I was legitimately suffering. I would be in the hospital and I’d look down and I’d get sometimes really intense, sometimes mean-spirited emails, and I’d think, “Don’t you get I’m just trying not to die right now?”
Alan: This is the most essential part of communicating to me, is remembering that there’s somebody at the other end of your communication, and it’s absent on the internet almost entirely.
Kate: Yes. That’s right.
Alan: Or at least to a great extent. People spray their feelings out at someone, very often at someone in particular. They’ll latch onto a posting and have an exchange with the person. “You’re stupid. Why don’t you try thinking?” ” Why don’t you just try dying?” It goes on and on. It gets as bad as it can get, and they don’t think there’s somebody reading that being affected by it.
Kate: Well, I started to think of the category as sufferer meets critic. I’m like, “You guys … Not now.”
Alan: Exactly. You have categories of responses. What are they?
Kate: Yeah. There was some minimizing. Those were the people that start every sentence with, “At least … ”
Alan: At least.
Kate: There was a lot of past tense. “At least you had a son.”
Alan: Oh my God.
Kate: Well, yeah, but the beautiful things are the very reason why I’m fighting like hell to live.
Alan: What do you think they’re going through when they say that? When they say ” At least”? It sounds to me like they’re trying to get over this moment themselves. They don’t want to share much of the pain you’re going through.

Kate: You know, that’s probably one strong impulse, is trying to put their own pain in perspective, and maybe other people’s pain seems to be in competition with theirs.
Alan: So you have minimizers and the “at least” people.
Kate: Minimizers, teachers, they are the ones who’ve very frequently recently seen a documentary or googled something important. What’s funny is that most of my smartest friends usually became teachers right away, where they said, “Look. I did a lot of research, and your cancer is …” and then this giant barrage of information. I think they too are trying to help me get back to a sense that we can outlearn and outknow, but that’s also part of the hubris of the whole thing, is I could fully understand my cancer and still die from it.
Alan: It sounds to me like you actually have a reaction to these people who were trying to help that enables you to feel a certain amount of discomfort, but you also seem to have an empathic reaction toward them. You seem to sense that they are trying to help. But I also get the overall feeling that you kinda wish they’d do a better job of it.
Kate: I think … the truth is I’m just tired. I’m tired because I have incurable cancer, and that means I don’t get to be done. And there’s no math on my suffering. It’s not like I get to say, “You know, at 35 I had this bad diagnosis, but it’s like I just get one blow and then from now on it’s going to be smooth sailing.” Nobody’s life runs on math like that. Because of that, I don’t get to then absorb the blow and think that I’m progressing in some way. I have to be as uncertain about the future as everyone else, so I do wish people would cut me a little slack. I had friends who right away just said that they felt that they couldn’t hear updates about how I was doing. The people who loved me.
Alan: They couldn’t hear updates. I wonder-
Kate: They just didn’t wanna know.
Alan: They only wanted to hear good news, or-
Kate: Yeah. They just didn’t want to know anymore. It felt very cruel, but I think what they were expressing was that I was now representative of a thought that they couldn’t have.
Alan: Yeah. None of us want to believe that we’re gonna die. You’re in a way put in the position where you have to think of that.
Kate: Well yeah, but even I can’t think of it. It’s an impossible thought. How could you possibly imagine your heart not beating and all the things that make up who you are-
Alan: Well, this is really interesting. When you think about, and I imagine you think about it more than most of us do, ’cause it’s what you’re struggling with. What do you think it would be like? Do you have a vision of what it would be like to not be here?
Kate: It’s funny. The second I got sick, I started to think of my mental processes as double brain. One part of my brain is exactly the way I was before, where I always imagined everything’s gonna work out, and I’m making plans to run a marathon or at least try 5K again. Then the other part of my brain is always making plans that I will come to the end of myself and that I will have to be making plans for a life for my family beyond me. They’re always running concurrently, which is exhausting.
It’s like I’ve got two decision trees to make for any major decision. Like saving money or do you get a house … Any decision has two very complicated decision trees associated with it, and the one that pictures life without me, [I never think of myself. It’s only because I only know how to press this despair into hope for my family. Any plans you make is like emotional triage. You cut off all the terrible part of that fear, and then you transform them into beautiful ideas for other people. Weirdly, picturing death can only feel like love for someone else.
Alan: I think you make a real contribution just on that point alone with your book and other things you’ve written, where you really allow us to think about death and dying and what other people are going through as they have various responses to the one universal fact we all face. I personally benefit a lot from denial. I think “Well, whatever happens to me, I’ll find a way to get around it, the best way I can.”
Kate: Almost all my friends at school, because I work in an esteemed university with many wine and cheese functions. Most of my friends are old. They’re old. They don’t love it when I draw attention to it, but they are. We’ve really entered a new phase of our relationship ever since they’re not allowed to complain quite as robustly as they did before.
We’ll sit there and we’ll talk a lot about … I’ll admit, I thought that just by the sheer fact that they’re old that they had grappled with their mortality.
Alan: No.
Kate: And it wasn’t true!
Alan: No, we’re still grappling with our youth, which we think we’re right in the midst of.

I was interested in how thoughtless some of the things that people said to her might be. When we come back, Kate tells about the tsunami of really strange reactions that came her way, and how she handled them.

Alan: I love the examples you give in the book of some of the worst ways people respond to somebody who’s really, really sick. I love this one: [The reason you’re dying is God needed an angel.
Kate: Oh, yeah. God’s very much hoping for new harp players all the time. The truth is, it’s heresy. In scripture, it’s meant to be that angels are created beings, like created from scratch, it’s not like people just get wings and a halo or something. It’s officially heresy, but it’s just an awful thing to say to somebody, is if God’s in the business of murdering loved ones in order to acquire and recruit workers.
Alan: I love this.
Kate: It’s horrible!
Alan: ‘Cause he needs a bigger and bigger band.
Kate: Yeah. That’s right! Who will play the cymbals?
Alan: “God is closing a door but opening a window.”
Kate: Oh, my gosh.
Alan: What does that mean when somebody says that to you?
Kate: Yeah, my favorite-
Alan: You need fresh air when you’re dying? I don’t get-
Kate: God’s an interior decorator. They’re trying to say there will be a new opportunity for you. Don’t you worry,” but my favorite response came from a friend of mine who lost both his legs to bone cancer. He called me, and he said, ” Kate. How am I supposed to get through all of these ‘windows’ God keeps opening?” And I thought, “I could not love you more.”
Alan: Did people actually say this to you? “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”?
Kate: Yeah, and-
Alan: But this is killing you.
Kate: Yeah yeah yeah! I could die! Thank you. That’s gonna be awkward for you. No, they make all kinds of promises. Yeah. But they’re sure that it’s a character lesson, and I’m learning. And this is okay because I’m learning something.
Alan: The one that’s really interesting is what’s on the cover of your book, “Everything Happens for a Reason. I hear people say it all the time about trivial things … relatively trivial … But they actually say it to you, to a person who’s facing death?
Kate: I think it’s the hope that everything [is like a boomerang, that if you put something good out, it rewards effort and it’s gonna come back.
Alan: Yeah, but the corollary of that is if something comes back to you, that means you sent a wrong boomerang out, and you don’t even know what you did.
Kate: I did this. I must deserve it. The only bit about that that’s meant to be empowering is that if I did something to cause this, then maybe I can be the cure. They’ll ask me to dig deep spiritually or in my eating habits, and “Please don’t eat bacon anymore,” they’ll tell me. They’re hoping that I will figure it out just in time to cure myself.
Alan: Which always sounds to me like it’s a one-sided communication. They’re sending their own boomerang out, which is “If I tell you something that puts to rest in my mind that I don’t have to worry about you anymore, I’ll feel better.” It’s a way of under the guise of helping you feel better, we feel better, by in a way denying the whole experience and denying you the chance of hearing from us, “Boy, I really feel bad that you feel bad.”
Kate: I’ll never forget sitting in a waiting room, and this awful physician’s assistant who just was supposed to do a checklist where she’s supposed to ask me how I’m really feeling. Insomnia, depression, anything. She’s supposed to see it and then acknowledge it. Instead, she looks past me and she says, “Well, the sooner you get used to the idea that you’re gonna die, the better.”
Alan: She said what?
Kate: “The sooner you get used to the idea that you’re gonna die, the better.”
Alan: This is wonderful advice if you’re talking to a lamppost.
Alan: I imagine you have to develop a policy, a strategy, for handling these categories of what people say to you, because otherwise each time they do it, it knocks you down a little bit.
Kate: Yeah. It does.
Alan: Have you developed … Like you say, “Oh here comes the teacher. How will I answer the teacher?”
Kate: Yeah. No, that’s so funny you said that, ’cause when my … Two of my best friends came with me for my first chemotherapy appointment, and I was so nervous, ’cause everything I had heard, it felt like they were just gonna pump poison in my body and that I would suddenly … I don’t know. I just thought “I’ll feel totally different. It won’t be the same.” I was so grateful they were there, and like only best friends can do they immediately came up with nicknames for everyone that we met, so there was “Needle Nancy” and “Chipper Chad”, but my favorite was they nicknamed “Exaggerator Eve,”
Alan: Exaggerator Eve!
Kate: Because she said she was going [through the list of my side effects and she looked over and very seriously was like, “I have noticed that when patients undergo chemotherapy and they take a nap, they never wake up.” I was like, “Like they die?” I was struggling to be like, “They die, or they like lose the ability to revive themselves?”
Alan: What was she trying to tell you?
Kate: I think that she just needed me to stay in the game, but that was not the right message.
Alan: Oh. It’s so hard to be in somebody else’s head. To say something to somebody that you think is helping them get through a difficult time, and you think you’re throwing them a lifeline, but you’re hitting them in the head with this huge lifesaver, knocking them unconscious.
Alan: Who has been the most helpful to you in this journey you’ve been on?
Kate: My kid. My son.
Alan: Really. How? How old is your son?
Kate: He just turned four. He’s probably a sociopath ‘cos he doesn’t care about my cancer at all. I love it. It’s more like having a puppy or like a wolf that lives in your house. Just partial destruction but so much … It’s this light airy feeling you get and this warmth. He is not just the most beautiful thing to live for, but he is wonderful at making moments, and I find that I … It’s like a different time, so I have my hospital time in the day and I’ve got my work time, and then there’s Zack time, and Zack time can stretch on forever
Alan: I thought you were going to tell me about your pediatric oncology friend.
Kate: Oh. I have a great friend. His name is Ray and he’s usually the person I talk to when I have the horrible talks. Whenever I have to make a complicated medical decision, one that requires a lot of just volleying possibilities and what-ifs with incomplete information,
Alan: Yes. That must be really hard.
Kate: It’s the worst, because you know that there might be a bad choice and you might make it, and there’s no way you can know. He is wonderful at coming into the room scriptless and just saying, “What can we know,” and then once we’ve talked to the end of it, he’ll put it in his calendar or he’ll say, “Based on what we knew at 2:00 pm on this Tuesday, we made a choice that you feel peaceful about.”
Alan: And it’s never going to be a perfect choice.
Kate: It isn’t.
Alan: There’s two elements of improvisation that are really important. One is not being bound by a script where I come in and I have to say these things and I have to say them a certain way. Instead, you respond to the person and the changing events, the uncertainty of the moment. The other thing is in improv there’s no mistake. You can’t make a mistake. It’s just what leads you to the next thing. You take the wrong turn, it turns out it’s not a wrong turn. It leads to the castle over there.
Kate: Yeah. I think when someone really loves you, even just stumbling around when you’re not sure what it is, they’re like, “These are tough decisions,” and there’s so many things to discuss and almost all of them would hurt your feelings if it was said by the wrong person. But when someone loves you and you’re trying to grapple with that unknown language, it really doesn’t feel like you could make a mistake. You just kinda discover what’s possible together.
Alan: Swimming together.
Alan: So here’s the obvious question. When we’re confronted with a friend or a loved one or even a stranger who’s seriously I’ll, have you developed a theory about what’s the best way to go about that?
Kate: I don’t know. ‘Cos people are so different in how they react and whether they want the intimacy of people talking about their illness with them or not. I love it when people are very practical. Touch or food or offering rides, but seeing you within the context of what is possible for you. Most of my life for a whole year was just hospital, so what I needed was a ride and for someone to be very quiet when they put all the drugs in so I could fall asleep. That involved just loving me enough to learn me and to not try to give me what they thought I should have, but just watch for a minute.
Alan: That sounds crucial. Find out what is real help-
Kate: It’s hard.
Alan: And not what you want to impose on the other person thinking it’s help.
Kate: People are trying so hard-
Alan: To make the other person feel comfortable, not to make yourself feel so comfortable.
Kate: Part of what I was doing at the time was I was writing this book and I was researching for another one because I wanted to get tenure to keep my job in a life I imagined I would live maybe. You’re doing all kinds of things for no reason, ’cause you have to imagine you’ll keep living. I was just really grateful when people would agree to be interviewed for my book or treat me like a scholar or laugh at my jokes, even if they’re dumb.
Alan: Well, that’s easy to do. Your jokes are good.
Kate: Thanks.
Alan: Try me out, ’cause here’s what I think I’ve learned talking to somebody who’s just lost a husband or a wife or somebody who’s very I’ll or had a catastrophe of some kind. What I tend to do is ask them very specific questions about it. When did he die? What happened? How long did it take before help came? I hear people start immediately to tell me the details of it in a way that sounds meaningful to them. Could I do better than that? What do you think?
Kate: I think they’re so easy for in stages too, especially if someone worries that their person has been forgotten, so often reviving those details. I’m sure it can be really beautiful for people. Because I’m in the middle of it, I usually want people to ask less about my treatment,
Alan: Oh, that’s interesting.
Kate: Because I’m aggressively bored of my own cancer and ’cause I’m worried that I’m gonna be eclipsed by something I didn’t choose.
Alan: This is really interesting. If someone wants to make a connection with you, wants to be emotionally present for you, in just a brief conversation by the water cooler, how can they know whether you’re at a point where you want to tell about the details of what you’re going through or you want to just talk about politics or baseball or whatever seems to come up?
Kate: Right now I am finding small talk to be a real gift. It lets us stay on the superhighway of safe conversation as opposed to emotionally veering off into the highways and byways. Well, I think the first thing I would hope is that people are not so overwhelmed with their own pity for me that they give me cocker spaniel face.
Alan: Cocker spaniel face! I love that.
Kate: Like turned slightly tilted to the side and it just looks like “Ohhhh,” and I think, “Oh, that,” like “This person wants something from me and it is sad.”
Alan: I know.
Kate: Trying to get over their own feelings as quickly as position about my cancer would be amazing, but just a good … I love it when people just do a quick acknowledge, like “Oh, man. What a year you’ve had,” but it’s not asking from me.
Alan: No, and it gives you the chance to elaborate on the year you’ve had if you feel like it.
Kate: Yeah. Or talk about something else. Something that’s just like a light volley.
Alan: Right. I imagine if they totally they ignore it; if they haven’t seen you in a while and it’s the elephant in the room, that can be just as obtrusive.
Kate: So often I have thought that I’m starring in a reality show about this girl has cancer and she’s pretty thrilled about it. The other bit too is I would love it, ’cause you talk a lot about tone, and I would love it if people just took a minute to watch someone else interact with someone in brief, because there’s a tonal shape to the conversation I find really interesting.
There’s the approach and then someone goes, “Me-meh-mehmehmeh.” It’s like acknowledging the sad thing, and the person goes, “Muh” and matches them there. Then they’re trying to get out of the conversation, so they try to whip it up a bit where they’re like, “Mu mu mu, mumuMUHmemuh.” And that’d be usually the point where they pivot hard to minimizing or like, “And a bright new day. Best wishes! Peace out.” Out.
And you do not have to make it easier or even tell them that there’s a better thing in order to get out of the conversation. They know it sucks. It’s stupid for them to have to pretend like, “You know, the plague isn’t as bad as it sounds. Boils do eventually subside.”
So yeah. Don’t feel like you need to give them the out. Just say, “I’m so glad to see you. It makes my day to see you.” And then just peace out. Moonwalk out of there. You’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.
Alan: That’s so great. It’s wonderful to get this report from the front. Really, thank you for that, because we all face these moments of grief and disability, and the older we get the more we’re surrounded by both of those things, and the more we need good, strong talk from people around us. Not satisfying their own discomfort, but helping us deal with our discomfort and finding something that together we can dance out of it.
Kate: That’s perfect. Yeah. We can just both be human.
Alan: Yeah. Thanks so much for all the things you’ve written there for this really lovely talk.
Kate: I am so grateful to be here.
Alan: Not more than me. Thank you Kate.
Not more than me. Thank you Kate. But before you go, we’ve been taking a moment at the end of each show to ask our guests seven quick questions. See what you think.
Question one, what do you wish you really understood?
Kate: Oh man, I wish I understood how people were feeling when I used certain words. Like whether I thought I was breezy and I actually being breezy. I wish I could feel it, like a superpower.
Alan: What do you wish other people understood about you?
Kate: That I miss being human, just a normal person people were into small talk, and two seconds ago I was just like them.
Alan: What’s the strangest question anyone ever asked you?
Kate: Someone asked me what heaven is like. I was like, oh, I’m still alive, I am not a hologram.
Alan: OK, question four. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Kate: I think I would say, that sounds really important as I’m making a hard transition. Or my family is amazing at saying things that don’t sound like anything. Like, “wow, how ’bout that!” And then quickly asking them something else or offering an unrelated anecdote.
Alan: How ’bout that, that’s a good one to put in my arsenal.
Kate: You don’t say? Yeah that’s another one… you don’t say…
Alan: Yeah that’s good. Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Kate: Oh yes, incredibly lucky people who are doing fine and are calling me from the beach…
Alan: You don’t feel any empathy for them?
Kate: No I got it, we’re all topped up.
Alan: OK, number six. How do you like to deliver bad news, in person, on the phone or by carrier pigeon?
Kate: Just a big dove release? I guess in person, ‘cos I guess with bad news it’s easier to be elliptical, to let them get there, you kind of do a light circle around it until you can let them land on the weight of it. I find that’s a lot easier to do in person when you have to… on the phone you have to have an agenda, like three things to say. But in person you just let it…
Alan: And you have to feed the pigeons. OK, number seven, what if anything would make you end a friendship?
Kate: You know, this has happened. I think if they let me know that my pain was a profound inconvenience to their life.
Alan: So you’d just remove them…
Kate: No they usually remove me.
Alan: So that ends the friendship.
Kate: It feels like if your humanity is a deep interruption, then it feels like it’s kind of run its course.
Alan: Well, thanks for your humanity on this show.
One last question. Update us on how you’re doing. You said earlier you were going in for scans that extended your life span three months at a time. Is that still how it is?
Kate: The last scan I had cut off all immunotherapy and we were just checking to see if it was working or not, and it was holding. I got upgraded to 4 months of scans instead of 3 months. I think that’s the way we’ll be able to tell how I’m doing, is my scan intervals. So I’m sure I’ll have 4 months for a while and then, man, when we get to 6 months like I’m going to be at the beach sending unsympathetic phone calls to other people.
Alan: It’s been great having you Kate.
Kate: It’s been good talking to you.
Alan: Bye, bye.
Kate: Bye.
This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

Kate Bowler’s best-selling book is Everything Happens for a Reason – and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Check out her podcast, Everything Happens, at Apple Podcast, and her website is KateBowler.com.

This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill.
You can subscribe to my podcast for free at Apple Podcasts.
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Thanks for listening.

Bye bye!