Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Some Awesome Things To Say To A Cancer Patient

You've lost so much weight. You look fantastic!
Thanks for noticing! My doctor says I'm malnourished.

You're strong and I know you can beat this.
Are you going to be disappointed in me if I die?

I read that kelp/almonds/asparagus have magical anti-cancer properties.
You should definitely eat some, then.

I know what you're going through.
Your grandfather's colostomy bag does not make you an expert on my medical situation.

That reminds me of when my dog/cat/gerbil had a tumor on her leg.
I'm sure that was heartbreaking for you.

God doesn't give us more than we can handle.
Define "handle."

OMG, I have/had cancer too! Let's be best friends.
Please stop weeping on my neck.

I know you don't want to talk about it, but I really need to.
Get a therapist.

Cancer rates go up the less you exercise.
You're right. It's my fault I got cancer.

I am so impressed by how fearless you are.
Actually, I'm scared shitless, but I've gotten really good at hiding it.

I'm praying for you.
That kind of grosses me out.

I feel awful, too! I have such bad allergies this time of year.
You win.

Everything happens for a reason.
I'm beginning to doubt your intelligence.

I had a friend who died from that same kind of cancer!
Wow, what a coincidence. Fuck you.

Virginia C. McGuire received her first cancer diagnosis when she was ten years old. She has heard everything on this list at least once.

90 Comments / Post A Comment

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

This is very good.

mjfrombuffalo (#2,561)

Yes, people are shits. People who mean well but don't know what to say and end up blurting out the first stupid thought that comes into their heads are totally asinine and complete shits. Even the ones who realize they just said something stupid and asinine and shitty. They should die in a fire.

But ya know, it would've been kinda nice for someone who's been told these things by well-meaning shits what other well-meaning shits might consider saying instead. Because I can see well-meaning me stupidly saying one of the above to be able to say *something,* as opposed to being all awkward and igoring the cancer thing or just avoiding the person altogether.

SeanP (#4,058)

@mjfrombuffalo Yep. I try to stick with "I'm sorry" and "Do you need help with anything?" (mowing the lawn or whatever). But that doesn't take a conversation very far – thoughts on what TO say would also be appreciated!

Keith Harris (#10,211)

I would like to add an awesome thing to say to someone whose family member has/had lung cancer: "Did he smoke?" Yes, he deserved it.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

I think "How to ensure no one visits your hospital room" would've been a better title.

rrot (#7,827)

"I never liked your old haircut anyway."

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well, I lost both my parents to cancer, and I didn't have a clue what the hell to say, either.

invisiblecunt (#9,933)

@KarenUhOh, my condolences :c

dado (#102)

The last thing I said to my Dad before he succumbed to lung cancer was "I love you man". I still cringe when I think of that.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@dado So you were thinking only of YOUR OWN feelings. Nice going.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I bet people with cancer say dumb things too sometimes.

edc (#11,479)

@Deleted by user
just look at the article!

Keith Harris (#10,211)

I can't believe the crybaby response to this. "Why is the lady with cancer being so mean to me?"

KarenUhOh (#19)

@Keith Harris I'm not sure this is what is going on. . .it is a difficult to impossible situation on both sides of the coin, fraught with awkwardness, helplessness and fear.

I said plenty of dumb things to my parents, many spoken consciously to defuse the horror. I pray that none of the stupidity translated to callous or cruel. But it's a microscopic membrane.

And many of the things the writer quotes are tone-deaf idiocy.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

@Keith Harris First off, good job reducing a person to their disease. I'm sure your friends all have awesome nicknames like AIDSy Steve and Herpetic Donna.
Secondly, the writer's post is asinine. Sorry, but when faced with a potentially deadly illness, people aren't going to be sure of how to react and what to say. So you won't be met with Wildean witticisms, but if you're lucky enough to be surrounded by people who try to express sentiments of support and hope, don't be a dick about it. The same rules of civility that apply to a person when they're in good health should apply when in poor health.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Keith Harris Wait, is this Mr Useful Noise? Because you been missed.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@IBentMyWookie -Go Wook.

Heather Wagner (#9,797)

I, too, cringed reading, as have blurted out many a trite bedside statement. I suppose some people are just better at being effortlessly compassionate. Others (like myself) bring in a stuffed elephant, babble about mutual friends, ask idiotic questions and, even worse, attempt to say something "profound", sound like an asshole, regret it for years.

As someone who has recently had to deal with a non lethal but very uncomfortable/incurable and not well treatable/makes you look like shit condition….

The best thing you can do for someone who is ill…is listen.

Now everyone shut up.

HiredGoons (#603)

@SarahHeartburn: I was about to say, this is a good time to practice those listening skills.

kneetoe (#1,881)

@SarahHeartburn Yes, my cat went . . . . Oh never mind.I have something along those lines and you have my sympathy (god I hope that's not on the list).

MollyBloomberg (#1,169)

That's the universe's way of making things even/steven. If something bad happens to you or your loved ones, you get to be a judgmental asshole. If you get lucky and escape the crushing horror of a fatal illness/injury to you and yours, you are then required to say awkward things to friends that weren't so lucky – allowing them the small reward of being slightly better human beings.

Circle of life, people.

MollyBloomberg (#1,169)

@MollyBloomberg I guess I should say from experience, it is a wonderful distraction to get to be a judgmental asshole.

Just want to head this one off at the pass…

Jesus fucking christ. This is one of the better posts I've read here in a while and the biggest commenter hissy-fit I've seen on the web in a while. Is this the new Gawker commenter wait-list?

Flaneur (#998)

@SarahHeartburn I don't really see much of a hissy-fit here. To whose comments are you referring?

Anyway, I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all response to this post, because the lines vary widely in their level of stupidity. Surely we know that anything that sounds victim-blaming (you should have exercised, etc.) is idiotic to say to a victim, but I would think it's appropriate to snark back against "You're strong and I know you can beat this" only if you know that the person delivering the sentiment is in fact an asshole. And to snark back against "I'm praying for you" seems to mark you as one of those tiresome fundamentalist atheists, no? It does seem that the post's message overall is "There's nothing right you can say, so be sure to feel bad while I lord my cancer-ridden superiority over you."

That said, I also imagine some of this was heightened for effect, and I did find it mildly amusing. So, thanks for a little diversion, Ms. McGuire, and good luck, although I don't pretend to know you're strong and certainly wouldn't presume to say you can beat this.

Matt (#26)

I tried the blog view just so I could vote this up.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Did I just read what I just read?

@SarahHeartburn I'm assuming everyone's getting defensive because Virginia has hit close to the bone? I thought the post was pretty hilarious.

Jasmine (#8)

@SarahHeartburn Not seeing a hissy fit either. Defensive postures from well-meaning people. However, would be nice to know what to say to a cancer patient (if anything) that won't piss them off or give them fodder for bitter blog posts.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Flaneur Seriously. Who's having a hissy fit? This seems to be (unusually, for the internet) a pretty adult conversation.

Cuttlefish (#11,264)

I'm new here so I'm still trying to get a feel for this place, but seriously? THIS is one of the better posts here? Jesus, that's not saying much for this site.

melis (#1,854)

OHMIGOD, you're not going to leave, are you???? DON'T LEAVE CUTTLEFISH

edc (#11,479)

@Cuttlefish hey I'm with you cuttlefish, this place sucks dick.

Matt (#26)

What's worst of all is I know someone who has one of these trite'isms tattooed on her person. I guess what I'm saying is fuck tattoos.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I hope it's "I'm so impressed by how fearless you are."

@Tulletilsynet I hope it's "My doctor says I'm malnourished."

roboloki (#1,724)

@Matt please tell us she has "you're strong and i know you can beat this" on her ass.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Matt I guess what SHE'S saying is…

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@Matt You told me you liked my allergy tattoo. Thanks.

SeanP (#4,058)

@roboloki: if I ever get a tattoo on my ass, it… won't have anything to do with "beating this".

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

The lesson, as always: don't try to be nice to people with cancer.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Don't try to be nice to anyone! Nice sucks. Be there, be yourself, listen, don't freak out. Do unto others etc. That's all I think she's saying. If it's coming out a little pained can anybody blame her?

BadUncle (#153)

Very funny, if bleak, post. As one who has spent a lot of time with different terminally ill friends and family, I'm sure I've said worse. You just try to listen more and talk less.

hman (#53)

"You put the 'blast' in blastoma."

scroll_lock (#4,122)

If it's a sibling, get their mind off things by asking if you can have their room. Let them help you redecorate it.

@scroll_lock If it's a distant relative or mere acquaintance try to establish a bond with them by inviting them to join your tontine.

mrschem (#1,757)

@scroll_lock <3<3<3

scroll_lock (#4,122)

Entertainment is the best medicine. Jazz up their Netflix queue with Brian's Song and Terms of Endearment.

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

If you get on the internet to say that this isn't funny, please get off of the internet.

edc (#11,479)

@Debussy Fields if you go around telling people what to do, take your own advice.

I say the same thing to friends with cancer that I say to all my friends with potentially fatal diseases: "Smooth move, ex-lax."

adminslave (#3,548)

After my mother died of cancer (I was 14), I remember a middle aged neighbor telling me, "I can imagine how you must feel." Really? When someone has had a loss like that, outside of "I am so sorry," there is little you can say. Mostly hugs and outings help, otherwise, keep mum.

I know my mother probably just wanted someone to chat about normal things with, and all the neighborhood Moms were frightened and little-seen until after she died. This might be slightly OT, but when my Mom was going through chemo she had a terrible 20-something doctor with no bedside manner. She had had a tumor taken off her right upper thigh/leg, and every time he would see her he would give her this condescending "How's my girl?" pat right where her wound was. She made a little sign that she taped to the spot one day, and it angered him, but he finally got the message. And my Mom had been in medicine!

KarenUhOh (#19)

@adminslave Yes. The doctors are, too often, the worst offenders.

I remember the guy looking at my mother's chest film, while I sat there with her and my father. The tumor was the size of a basketball. We all saw it. Nobody was being fooled.

"Well," he sighed. "There are many patients of mine who have recovered."

roboloki (#1,724)


zidaane (#373)

@KarenUhOh When the doctor told my mom she didn't have any more treatment options my sister broke down and then he started crying and they all hugged. He was not a young doctor either and I don't think my mother was special (just someone's mom). She did have a fighting spirit and lasted a few years longer than they imagined and I think it effected him that day. I haven't met a lot of cancer doctors but this one was a good one and cared about people.
I met some great hospice nurses later and think they are saints walking the earth in my opinion.
We had a lot of black Irish humor during the hospice and I told my sister, if I ever volunteered as a hospice worker they would end up pounding on the bathroom door wondering where I had gone for the last umpteen hours and I would be curled up in the fetal position clutching a fifth of whiskey saying "I'll be out in a bit. Just give me a moment" and basically being the last person you want around at that moment.

Right after we knew my mother had died I walked out on her deck and took a picture of the sky because it looked so beautiful.

wawl (#11,474)

@zidaane That is such a beautiful story…….. YOU ARE RIGHT there are some folks working in those areas (hospitals too) who totally are saints on this earth in many true ways. That's so funny, you're gallows humor… This is I think a great example for how to deal with this part of life… so hard, but your story is so touching and funny and hopeful in the face of what we must face with grace in the end… And from which we must try to draw the strength and inspiration for living all the more vigorously, knowing that our time here is not infinite… although who knows what comes after? No religion, no atheist, and the agnostics just bow out of the question with WTF, how should I know?

KarenUhOh (#19)

@zidaane So many echoes in your story to our own. With my father, there was really little time or opportunity for hospice, but the home health workers, and the people at the ECF (euphemism for nursing home: thank God that only lasted a few days) were absolutely wonderful people.

The evening my father died–June 13th, I was driving home across open prairie, watching the most amazing sunset I'd ever seen in my life. Obviously, one reads into situations what one needs/believes to. I sure did.

ButterflyFace (#11,456)

I had a kidney transplant when I was 12. I was diagnosed with lupus when I was 23. I have been treated for cancer 3 times. I have had many, if not all of those things said to me.
The best thing I hear about is my positive attitude. I'm usually thinking how great pain meds are and how much they help with keeping my attitude so positive.

A. Lynn (#11,458)

This is awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I think cancer is one of those conditions, like grief, that separates the person who has it from most of the rest of humanity. And nobody likes feeling so separate, which is what I think Virginia is pissed about. Nor does the rest of humanity know what to say about it and is awkward/offensive/narcissistic/comforting, according to their characters. This separateness is why listening is such a comfort: the separate person doesn't feel so alone.

trampage (#11,461)

As the sister of a cancer survivor, I absolutely loved this post. My youngest sister was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer at the age of 11. The things people would say to her and my family were often insulting or just plain rude. I found that the worst offenders were ALWAYS the people at my family's church (sorry!). Here's a super-fun selection of the things we'd hear on the regular:

"You're such an inspiration!" oh man, FUCK YOU. boy, i am sure glad you find my sister's cancer, which has a 75% chance of killing her, to be an *inspiration*. I'm just so happy for you, that you can sit there with your cushy life and find *inspiration* in an 11 year old girl fighting for her life in some of the most painful, embarrassing, and difficult ways possible.

"So, whats the prognosis?" This was always asked of us by a stranger. Literally no one we actually knew would EVER ask something like this. It was always whispered to my mom or I when we would be pushing her wheelchair, like she couldn't hear us talking about her if we *whispered*. Fuck you, vultures. My mom was always diplomatic about it, answering with a "well, we're hopeful" but in my adolescent anger, I would usually go with "Well, you know, she's lost the use of her left side, most of her motor skills, her eyesight, her speech and her ability to walk. She's pumped so full of medicines and poisons that no one is sure what is the cancer and what is the side effects. She can't control her bodily functions and is on a feeding tube so she doesn't die of malnutrition while the chemo and radiation do their work. She has a 25% chance of making it. Is that what you want to hear?" This is very effective at shutting people up but you will get a reputation at church.

"Oh, well don't you look pretty today!" No, she doesn't. She has a head wound that is wrapped in gauze, no hair, and is bloated from all the steroids. She is, at any given moment, either puking, about to puke, or covered in puke. Fuck. You. She's battling the sort of illness that would bring a grown man like you down to his knees and you have the GALL to lean down right in her face like that and condescendingly tell her she looks pretty? She's a pediatric cancer patient, not an imbecile, and we ALL have more on our minds than whether she looks good. She doesn't. Stop it.

People say some seriously fucked-up shit and I think this piece was spot-on. The best thing you can say is that you are so sorry for what they are going through, and ask them if there is anything you can do to help. Let them guide the conversation: if they bring up their illness, listen, but cancer patients are people too and they want to talk about things that aren't chemo and doctors appointments. Ask their family members or other friends if there is anything you can do: they will often be useful in telling you "oh, no edible arrangements, the smell of food makes her nauseous" or "DVDs would be great, the chemo appointments get really boring"

Okay this is a little diversion. Many years ago I worked in a psych. hospital as the Client Advocate. One of the clients had committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree off in the fields away from the main buildings of the facility. The staff decided to hold a group session with clients and staff, as a remembrance of this person. A question was raised as to what kind of action could be taken to remember this client. The social worker immediately spoke up "I know, we can plant a tree."

ButterflyFace (#11,456)

@John Bennett Waldron@facebook I probably don't really know the social worker in question, but I bet I know a few I could interchange him/her with.

Aatom (#74)

My boyfriend had cancer, so I totally know what you've been thro… oh, wait. Crap. (I just sent this to him, btw, because he was just telling me how frustrating these types of sentiments were for him as well.)

Someone once told me that I should meditate to get rid of my brain tumor because it helped reduce the inflammation in their knee. UH WHA?

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

When you have Tourettes and you tell people you have Tourettes and what it consists of, sometimes they will say "oh, that sounds like I have a little bit of Tourettes," which is awesome because it totally doesn't make you feel like you have a made-up condition at all.

C_Webb (#855)

@MikeBarthel: My daughter has Tourette's. (My insurance company also seems to believe that it's a made-up condition.) On bad days, I kind of hope she develops a tic that involves punching the sort of people you mention in the face.

iplaudius (#1,066)

Remember, the first three letters of cancer spell "can"!

iplaudius (#1,066)

Thank God for your imminent death, otherwise we'd have never had the chance/reason/obligation to catch up!

petejayhawk (#1,249)

My mom "beat" cancer back in the mid-90s, and now it's slowly killing her. She's got a while, though, so she's making the most of her health while she has it. She's on permanent disability, cashed in her 401k, got early Social Security benefits, and has embarked on home improvement projects, the likes of which have never been seen before, let alone performed by a 57-year-old Stage 4 breast cancer sufferer.

When I talk to her, I ask her how things are going…and later in the conversation, I ask how THINGS are going – she knows what I mean. I let her give me as many or as few details as she feels like giving, and I just shut up and listen. Then I briefly focus on the positive things she's said ("well, the doctors say things are stable right now…"), I ask her if she needs or wants anything, then we move on. We don't avoid the cancer elephant in the room, but we don't dwell on it, and I only talk about it as far as she wants to take that conversation. Then we move on.

She's very tired, is short of breath, and looks much frailer than her formerly-very-young-looking 57 years old. But she's doing pretty damn well for living with a death sentence hanging over her (or actually living inside her boobs and lungs). And THAT is pretty cool. No need to dwell on it.

Commenter9 (#11,470)

This is about the 10th post like this that I've seen, harshly criticizing well-meaning people who don't always know what to say. Not one of them has acknowledged that some people are just trying to be nice and helpful and they don't know what to do and are clumsy with their words.

picniclightning (#11,472)

To those who think this post is too harsh: Yes, of course there are people who are so overwhelmed, afraid, nervous, etc. that they will say stupid shit to someone who has cancer. Yes, people are fallible. But that's the real value of this post. Those of us who are lucky enough to not have cancer will read, remember, and not say these things in the future. The subhead says "Be Less Stupid," and this situation is no exception.

neologism (#4,822)

Cancer survivor here. This post brings back some bad memories but it's also pretty funny and accurate. I had Hodgkin's lymphoma when I was 10 years old, and now more than 20 years later, I still remember when my clueless best friend told me that I probably wouldn't have gotten cancer if I had just eaten more fiber (TV commercials at the time were touting the anti-cancer benefits of bran flakes and such). At that age I didn't know how to verbalize how much it hurt me when he implied that it was my own fault.

Recently I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Did you know that children who receive radiation treatment for cancer (as I did) are much more likely to get diabetes later in life? So far I've kept it a secret from everyone except my mother, because I don't want anybody fucking judging me or telling me that I deserve it because I ate too many donuts and french fries.

Bittersweet (#765)

@neologism: My mother is the only one who's judged me for having a genetic heart condition. She believes physical illnesses are manifestations of deep mental/emotional issues, and my heart condition must be an indication of my problems with love.

Wow, it's a wonder I reached adulthood with any sanity at all.

wawl (#11,474)

If you get on the internet to say that this isn't funny, please get off of the internet. <–This

I think it's clear this is a piece of SATIRE not the exact verbatim literal list explicating the author's attitude about this matter.

It's great that it sparked genuine dialogue about what's really kind of hard to deal with… So, it's just good that we can talk about it. And some of that was pretty funny and a sharp, poignant reminder that when people are going thru a lot, it's good to try to be sensitive to that, and realize people need to vent a little bit, and laugh too… And that they might not be telling you everything they're feeling, but try to reach out a little bit, if you can. 'Cause they're going thru a lot to deal with.

hot mess (#4,014)

I had wuss cancer and these ring true to me. My favorite was when my crazy ass aunt tried to give me some sort of blessed piece of lace from Lourdes. My Jesus loving nurse mom actually told me not to answer the door when she showed up to drop it off. My dad was even funnier, he called his place of work (a firehouse) to give them surgical updates. The shit part of cancer is that it becomes so public so fast. It just sucks and makes you hate going to the doctor for the rest of your life. And of you're still paying off your student loans a cancer bill is a great thing to add to it.

edc (#11,479)

the writer sounds like an asshole.
and yes, if you smoke or don't exercise you get what you deserve.

bronwyn (#3,351)

"Generally, they like to be judgemental."

garge (#736)


Art Yucko (#1,321)


cherrispryte (#444)

@edc you sound like an asshole too!

brooklynbee (#8,273)

This is what I always say when someone tells me they have cancer or another serious illness (or have a family member going through illness): I'm sorry to hear that. If you want to talk about it, I'd be glad to listen. And if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine too. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.

If your response to this is "omg I feel defensive. How dare someone with cancer object to how I choose to (insensitively) show my concern for their condition! Their having cancer is SUPER AWKWARD for me, ffs, they should show me some consideration!" you are 1. a douchebag, and 2. exactly who this post is satirizing. I do not and have never had cancer but somehow, SOMEHOW, I still know better.

Thank you and have a lovely day.

People praying for you "grosses you out"? I don't get it. What exactly *should* people say? Or would you prefer if everyone just ignore you entirely?

sweettaquita (#11,553)

I was diagnosed with cancer as a relatively young adult while my mother was dying of the same disease. It was an incredibly, surreally difficult time of my life. From experience, I can tell you that the worst thing you can say to a cancer patient is *nothing* because you are so afraid of saying something stupid or insensitive. I think most of us going through cancer treatment know that we make you feel awkward, but we still want to be treated as human beings. I had people say dumb things about my hair loss, weight loss, genetic misfortune… I could tell there was no malice involved, just friends treading on unfamiliar territory. Oh, and even though I am not a religious person, I was always touched by the people who said they were praying for me.

cathe (#18,758)

Tho it is very hard to find the right words to say for those fighting biggest battle of their lives, words must first be filtered in our minds and then again sometimes just being there in silence holding them and caring for them are all thats needed But Lord I have heard some of the words said before that leave me in a state of thinking "what the hell are you saying to my loved ones"

I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer almost a year ago a month after my 23rd birthday. All of the above was said to me, as well as "I don't know how you do it" (1 in 3 get cancer so chances are good that you will), "You're so brave!" (I don't exactly have a choice), "Your short hair cut looks great!" (Why don't you let someone buzz a foot off your hair?), and a plethora of questions about my prognosis (hint – NEVER ASK ABOUT SOMEONE'S "PROGNOSIS"), asking if I was going to die, and telling me stories about their dead relatives who had cancer. I think the point is that the responses are going to be what plays in our heads – particularly for young adults with cancer. The only time I have *ever* actually said something negative back was when someone was SMOKING when they said that to me or if anyone asks what caused it with a judgmental attitude. Hodgkin's lymphoma comes out of the clear blue sky – it was nothing I did or didn't do.

And yes, people telling me that they're praying for me – especially since they know I am an agnostic Jew and they almost always are of a Christian persuasion – really grosses me out. Say you're thinking about me, sending me good vibes, lighting a candle, or saying my name in temple… but I will feel weird if you pray for me from a different religion's standpoint. But I will be gracious to your face about it.

Another thing I hate is "Let me know if I can help you". That put so much stress on me because it is excruciatingly hard to ask for help and feel like even more of a burden. Instead, pick something you enjoy and offer your services. Offer to cook a big meal for a specific date. Give money or put up an office collection – cancer is expensive (the month of March cost more in medical care than my lifetime earnings – and I have held many jobs in addition to the professional one I hold now) and unfortunately your money will mean more than most words will. Offer to do laundry or to clean the house. Walk the dog. Scoop the cat's litter. Take care of the kids.

Cancer is not our entire lives. Most of us don't want it to be. Please don't ignore the fact that we have cancer but don't let that color every facet of every conversation. There are still coworkers who have never said anything to me but talking about cancer (I was 4 months into my first job out of college when I was diagnosed). You can still invite us to lunch, just expect us to be a little flakier than usual. Talk to us about current events. Or stupid stuff! People gave me US Magazine through chemo – it was great. Most of all, don't make it about yourself. So many people on here are commenting all butthurt because it's all about them. Guess what – it's not a cancer survivor's (and you're a survivor from the moment you're diagnosed) JOB to make you feel better about OUR disease. Blogs like this (and my own) highlight these statements specifically because we KNOW people don't know what to say and we want to point out the particularly stupid things that you can say.

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