CLL Support Association
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Are Taboos a Crime against Humanity?

You may be thinking “A slightly odd question to post on a site about cancer for people with cancer”. Let me describe the antecedents.

I was reading a post, on this site, by a member who described a development in their health status as “basically it’s a death sentence”. Everyone who replied made reference to the comment, no one ‘ignored’ it. You may well think “Why should they ignore it? We could all be in the same boat one day.”

That isn’t the point.

It made me think. I thought about my three sisters, all cancer sufferers, two dead, and two abandoned by at least one very long-standing ‘friend’ when the ‘C word’ was mentioned. It made me think about others I have and do know with cancer, who report similar ‘desertions’.

It made me think about how our societies treat death, or should I say “ignore it completely” and how that in turn promotes certain behaviours that are physically harmful to members of those societies, on a very large scale, over a very long period of time. Surely such circumstances constitute a crime against humanity, hidden in plain sight.

A few thoughts crossed my mind (not a long journey). Here is my exposition.

I have never liked taboos. I remember friends commenting in the early ‘70s how they could not understand why I would associate with people I knew to be gay. They had strange ideas and beliefs.

Taboos allow perverse ideas and beliefs to go unchallenged. Perverse thinking results in perverse behaviour and that results in harm.

I don’t like taboos.

‘Death’ is a special taboo. It isn’t even on the ‘List of Taboos’. Instead of societies raising their members with appropriate attitudes, they instead do nothing and promote harm by omission.

People are struck dumb, not even capable of eschewing meaningless platitudes such as “Oh I am sorry”. No, you’re not sorry, you don’t know me, you have no emotional investment in me, you cannot possibly be sorry. So, they do and say nothing, even life-long friends, embarrassed, devoid of the experience or skills to behave appropriately. All because death isn’t even on the ‘List of Taboos’.

How much better for would-be platitude peddlers, and how much better supported and no longer harmed, would be ‘those facing death (or its possibility)’, not to be abandoned, or worse, ignored?

As long as the status quo is maintained, justifications of “But I don’t know what to say”, will continue in clarion call (once out of your ear-shot). So what do you ‘say’ to someone who is facing death? As many of us know, the secret is not to try to do, what most people try to do, think of something that will make a substantive difference, because you can’t. What you can do is say what you feel, without fear, because it isn't taboo...

“I can only wish you what I would wish for myself in similar circumstances, that you die well and in the arms of those you love.”

Thank you for reading. Blessed be.

3 Replies

Death is the only certainty in life - ignoring that fact seems odd. Not that long ago dead relatives were taken home before the funeral. Now more often the bodies are kept in a funeral parlour and rarely visited before the funeral. We are made to think that medicine will cure everything - it is hard on the medics when they fail which they will if this is their expectation. Since 1 in 3 can expect to have a cancer it seems difficult to understand. As a patient we don't want a fix from those we meet but their company on the journey. Hopefully that message will get through a the penny drops that there are people with cancer all around them.


A fascinating subject and in my earlier blog, 'post diagnosis, when people let us down', it occurs to me that there is a strong element of what you've just described, Taliesin.

The people who can't confront, won't confront and by omission avoid cancer sufferers and their condition because its too painful or difficult to deal with. It is indeed a taboo and rather than having to confront the reality of it, they become absent friends who always mean to meet up at some point.

I think cancer is a taboo because it still represents the possibility of death to people and there remains great ignorance. Our condition represents this to certain people and by confronting us, they are forced to confront the reality of their own mortality. So it's easier to sanitise and veil the subject. It's a taboo rooted in fear of the unknown.



In my experience people often react to the way in which the person with cancer expresses theirself. I told my friends and family in detail and cheerfully, not depressively and now they ask about my progress and we discuss it as we would anything else. People will usually follow your lead on this.

When my husband died of cancer I noticed the differences between peoples reaction. Some expressed their sympathy to me (and however it is said or done it really does help) whilst others avoided me because they didn't know what to say. I understand this but it has made me always aware of other bereaved people and I make a point of talking to them - because I know how much it means.


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