How many people do you know? Seriously, think about it. Between your friends and family, close acquaintances and all those you keep in touch via phone and social media, how many are there you share tidbits of your life with? Hundreds?
On the same day I received my breast cancer diagnosis, I was struck by a variety of thoughts I never imagined would pop into my mind at such a time.
Besides mortality, treatment and how my life had changed in an hour, random thoughts about not being desirable anymore to keeping the dogs reassured, one that stuck was “to tell or not to tell”? Despite my online persona, which is only a facet of me, I am pretty private with a tendency to shyness. But I also knew that faking would be harder than telling: how could I go through interactions with friends and acquaintances pretending my main focus for the next few months didn’t exist? On that particular day, I received an email from a friend in Portland asking me to visit. I could have just said I was busy, and she would have been none the wiser, but somehow I couldn’t. So I decided to tell.
I also realized that, in 53 years of carefully tended friendships, I knew the proverbial shitload of people. I strategized with my husband, and a couple of close friends, and decided that they would feed some of the news to certain family and friends while I would inform those I felt needed to hear it from me. I expected my inbox and phone to be inundated, and it was.
I will admit: it’s heart-warming and encouraging to feel so loved and worried about but also a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t make my days solely about my cancer, but I tried to respond personally to most who called and wrote. I also know that, as time goes by, the attention will abate and I might have to be the one to reach out. It’s been interesting, and highly educational, to witness people’s reactions; how, in some cases, the news fed into their own personal fears, how many struggle with what to say.
Every email, message and phone call has come from a place of love and concern – I am very aware of it. And I welcome it all. This is still very new to me: however, I thought it might be interesting, if you are ever in the situation of needing or wanting to reach out to someone going through a difficult diagnosis, to know what worked for me, what turned me off and what was helpful.
- Shy away from medical advice. Actually, run from it, unless you happen to be a doctor specializing in that particular disease. Don’t send web links, don’t share stories about your aunt, neighbour or friend. Don’t tell me what you read or heard. Aside from the fact I happen to be better informed than most, even when people are not, it really isn’t helpful. Every type of breast cancer is a disease in itself, with the only common denominator being cells that have gone awry. Your neighbor’s treatment will most likely be nothing like mine and I have to focus my energy on trusting the doctors I picked. Surprisingly, it’s been very easy to stay off the internet, not reading on my specific cancer. I want to know, but only from those who are in the know.
- On the other hand, if you have been through it, I want to hear from you. Particularly how you got through it from an emotional standpoint, what cream worked during radiation treatment, what kept you cheerful. Random things people outside the club wouldn’t be able to offer.
- Do not use the word prognosis. I can’t tell you why but it turns me off. In the same vein, I am not sure why I have a strong aversion to “beat”, maybe because “beating cancer” is rooted in a media linguistic cliché that makes my stomach churn: beating cancer, the war on drugs and on and on. We only use beat in association with cancer but not with any other disease. I am sick and I will do what I need to do to get better – I am not running some sort of race.
- Do offer to help. Even if I might not need the help at all. I have friends who have gone through treatment without missing a day of work and I hope to be one of them. Still, I know it makes you feel good and useful at a time of powerlessness and I might put you to work. If you have excellent cooking skills, I might rely on you to feed me dinner after surgery so take out won’t be involved. If you live nearby, maybe I will ask you for a lift to radiation if I am not feeling too perky. If you are funny, send jokes – I would like to keep on laughing. Invite me for lunch and feed me mindless chatter and gossip. I can’t focus on damned cancer the whole bloody time. If you live far away, just tell me that you love me. I can still feel your presence.
- Do call things with their own name. I noticed very many people skirt around the issue – my disease has been referred to as “my problem/what happened/my inconvenience” (although I do like inconvenience, thank you Adrian). It’s actually called cancer and you won’t catch it by uttering it out loud. It helps me accepting it.
- If you are active on social media, think twice before reposting random articles on why eating three carrots a day will cure you from cancer. Or why the pharmaceutical industry is sitting on an obvious cure for it. Or lists of things that cause cancer. To people in my club, it is pretty offensive. I didn’t bring this onto me – as a matter of fact, I am the poster child of someone who shouldn’t have got it: I don’t drink, smoke, my diet is pretty much vegetarian, and I work out like a fiend. As my surgeon told me, you are a woman, you menstruated for over 40 years and, during that time, the bombardment of estrogen in your breast caused for some cells to break. Most women who get breast cancer don’t have a hereditary history of it.
- Don’t stay away because you are afraid. It’s not about your fear but mine. Take courage.
- I am not trying to learn any lessons. The most spiritual people are inclined to help me find a meaning or a reason why this happened. Honestly, I already appreciated watching the sunset from my patio, smelling my dogs’ necks, curling up with a book and the myriad little things I have never taken for granted.
- Treat me the way you always have: I am still me. Loving, happy, annoying, stubborn me. Please no pity. Just empathy.
Many people have mentioned how brave I am. Mostly, I am scared shitless. But because I sound pretty level-headed when I talk or write about it, I might have come across as brave. I have also been at the consoling end, wiping the tears of friends, rather than mine. I am not brave. Faced with the same situation, you would also do what I do: getting on with it. Because you wouldn’t have much of a choice. So, if you can, take away just three things from this:
- I am sharing this not to inspire but to remind every woman out there that ignoring that mammogram could be a costly mistake. If I hadn’t insisted on going every year, I would have found out next October. The treatment would have likely been the same but the tumor would have been bigger. Please, go.
- Make your presence felt to someone undergoing the same experience. Just let them know you are there. Respect their silence if they don’t reach out but know that a kind word goes a long way and is never forgotten. Stupid jokes are forgotten but help in the short term.
- Faced with the same challenge, you would have the strength too. As Oprah would say, this I know for sure.
To those of you, faceless readers, who took the time to reach out, publicly or privately, it means as much to me as hearing from those whose faces I do know. I won’t plague you with cancer posts on a regular basis, I promise. We try to keep it uplifting over here at C&S. But from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
All images by Banksy