A few things happen when you tell people you have cancer.
They say they are sorry (as if they gave you cancer)
They look at you as if you will drop dead at any moment. (Thanks, that makes me feel better)
They tell you about all the other people they know who have had cancer. (Is this supposed to make me feel better?)
They give you the face (the pity face)
They call you brave. (Brave? Seriously? That’s the last thing I’m feeling)
I’m part of a monthly support group for young adults with cancer or who have had cancer. It’s a lovely group of people. I found them shortly after my diagnosis and without them, treatment would have been much, much harder.
We talk a lot about the ways other people react to cancer. The general thought of the group-few people react in a helpful way. For the most part my emotions seemed to shut down after my diagnosis. I really couldn’t figure out how I felt. As I slowly started telling people about it, only two people made me feel better. And they just simply said “f*ck cancer!” and they let me vent about how I was feeling. They didn’t try to make me feel empowered or anything like that. They let me feel how I needed to feel-sad, angry, confused, and scared.
Everyone else I told seemed to forget how to behave. I can’t tell you how many people I had to comfort and reassure when I told them my diagnosis. I had to convince them I would live. I had to convince them everything would be ok. Except, I don’t know if I really believed that myself. I just wanted them to shut up and calm down and figured that was the fastest way. It feels like people react with even more pity when you are a young cancer patient. “But you’re so young!” Gee, thanks for the reminder. But obviously “young” does not prevent cancer.
And then they’d move on to calling me brave. To me, being brave means you chose to be in the situation. Like a person who has joined the military. They are brave. They are willing to risk their lives. Me? I didn’t choose cancer. It chose me. I basically showed up when and where I was told and then went home and cried and watched TV. Before I knew it, the cancer was gone. But not once did I feel brave. I still don’t.
Some of the people in my group finished treatment over 15 years ago and some are still going through it. Yet everyone still feels the effect of the face when they tell people about their cancer. I’m not saying there is a universal correct way to behave when someone tells you they have cancer. Everyone is different, after all. But if someone tells you they have cancer, don’t to make it all about you and how you feel and your experience with cancer. Shut up for a minute and let them talk. Or cry. Or yell. Ask them what they need. Maybe they need to throw something, maybe they need a hug, maybe they need cookies, or maybe they need a drink. (I needed all those things)
Truly one of the best things you can do when someone tells you they have cancer-don’t make it all about you. This is about them. This is about how they feel and what they need. So if they need to throw things while eating cookies and drinking a beer, do your best to make that happen.