How many of you women with breast cancer experience have heard this one…”oh, I am so sorry to hear that you had a lumpectomy. You know, my best friend’s cousin had breast cancer and…” And before you know it, the woman has told you a story of horrible recurrent cancer in a young woman with kids — who, coincidentally! — happen to be your children’s ages. And you’re supposed to politely stand there and listen because she is trying to make you feel better.
I get it — there is a lot of anxiety around breast cancer. No shit. But I say to myself, as I stand there in painful disbelief, hey well-intentioned lady, you have anxiety and I HAVE CANCER! The randomness of my cancer terrifies you but the ease with which you align me with a struggling woman terrifies me.
Once upon a time, all the women who have had breast cancer didn’t have it. And those people who tell you their 3rd -4th -5th -person horror stories don’t want to cross that not-so-great divide. Perhaps if they talk fast enough, they can stay in the land of have-nots.
I present The Inoculation Theory of Cancer Communication:
An emotion presented as compassion, it often accompanies someone’s cousin’s cancer in some town 1,000 miles away, do you know her??? Or, with detailed conveyances of mammogram scares and repeated ultrasounds, these people are indeed sad that it was you who got it but really relieved it wasn’t them. In this scenario you are the silent totem, a talisman that wards off cancer because you have it. Like a flu shot. A bit of you goes a long way.
Don’t trap me here to help you feel safe.
A Numbers Game
This is when you are subjected to the living cancer tree. The odds are 1 in 8 and sure enough, you know 8 people who can name 8 others. Those women with cancer know who they are. The others do too. But somehow naming them for you allows Ms. Helpful to remain part of the lucky 7.
I never did the “Why me” thing. I was much more of the “Why not me?”
I listened to these women for way too many months because I know how terrifying the thought of cancer is. I knew that when these women talked to me they babbled incessantly because they needed to fill up the space around me quickly so that none of the cancer leaked out of me onto them.
I’ve changed the aura around me so there are no gaps of vulnerability. They now have nothing to worry about. Neither do I.
Now that my treatment has ended, I’ve left behind my daily cancer identity. I no longer have those conversations with people. Sure, folks ask me how I am doing but people are not so frightened of the answer. I look good, I feel good, my prognosis is good and I function like a regular woman. But I’m not. I am a woman who had cancer and I am wiser because of it. I stop people in mid-horror-story saying, “I have my own cancer story, thank you.” I don’t jump on the “I can’t believe it” bandwagon because I do believe it — I do believe that breast cancer is of epidemic proportions. And, I don’t pretend to have conversations with people who do all the talking. I leave.
I have learned what a strong woman looks like. It’s the friend who says: “I will be by your side for this journey, no matter how difficult.” I’ve learned the difference between someone who gives you healing energy and someone who doesn’t.
I’ve learned to gratefully receive every day with love and joy and humor and I don’t care if people are uncomfortable around my cancer. I am wide and open, but I am no longer vulnerable to sad, empty eyes.
So, dear friend with cancer, the next time a woman tries to project all her anxiety on to you, remember that she wants you to protect her from getting cancer. You already know that you can’t. You don’t have to listen to the stories, the stats, the names, and the docs. You have your very own stories to tell the people who really do listen to you.
Tell her that you understand her fears and cut her Cancer Communication short. Remind her that you are not contagious, wish her well and send her on her way.
Copyright 2004/not to be reprinted without the author’s permission