This post is part of a month-long series on my cancer experience of 2013. They originally appeared on my blog at http://www.caringbridge.org.
One of the cancer blogs I read regularly is written by a woman with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She writes a lot about communication — especially on the things someone should and should not say to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer.
Today, I am going to share with you the things I’ve learned that I should say and not say when breaking the news about cancer. Unfortunately, you will probably have to break the news regarding a medical condition to someone in your life (that’s just the way life works), so I am here to help you through the process.
When I was first diagnosed in January, I felt the best way to inform people was to say it matter-of-factly; almost blurting it out. One moment, I would talking about the spring registration schedule, and the next minute I’d say, “I have cancer.” Once I said it, I would scramble to come up with words regarding the good prognosis, the fact that it’s a “good” cancer, anything.Then the conversation would usually end with the listener in tears and me feeling insensitive. “Why is she crying? I’m the one with the cancer.”
But it was my approach. And now, I’ve found myself breaking the news more and more since I returned to work from the non-surgery. (Yes, I’m still a little salty…the date.) I’ve found that a lot of people knew I was out, but some just thought it was coincidence, or I was at a meeting at another campus, etc. And with that comes a wave of me breaking the news all over.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Start talking about the affected area. “Toni I haven’t seen you in a while, how have you been?” “You know, I’ve been off because my thyroid has been acting crazy and giving me a lot a problems.”
This is good because it sets the stage. The listener can decide if they can handle more specific news, or if they are done. Let’s continue, shall we?
“Really, Toni? What’s it doing?” “Well, it bounces back from hyperactive to hypoactive and I have a goiter. It appears that the goiter has an underlying malignancy, which means I have thyroid cancer.”
2. Give them a moment to respond in the way they are comfortable.I usually end up saying something like, “See I told you it was crazy.”
Now…telling someone you have cancer is 10 percent about you, but 90 percent about them. They will instantly remember their uncle, or cousin or friend who has had the disease and no matter what your prognosis is, their mind will travel.
3. Relate the news to a celebrity. I am very thankful that Brooke Burke-Charvet announced her thyroid cancer when she did. I actually told her this on twitter yesterday. (You know how I feel about pop culture and social media.)
Once I announce my condition, I follow up with, “Did you see the lady from Dancing With the Stars on television? You know she just had thyroid cancer too?”
This helps because our society loves celebrities, and we tend to think they are invincible. But in reality, they get cancer too.
4. Tell them how you will keep them informed. Once people get over the initial shock, they need to know how they will keep up with your progress. Tell them they’ll see you until surgery in June, they can read your blog, whatever. Make sure they know how they can stay updated.
5. Before treatment starts, let them see you “live” with the disease.Some days, I wish I could say, “I have cancer” so I’m staying in bed all day. But I can’t. There’s middle school drama, teen whispering, and college students who need my fashion advice. Continuing to “live” is just as important for me as it for everyone around me.
*Note: The fashion advice comment was a joke. Well, kind of.