Every month, I receive calls from women who were recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Almost all of these women ask me the following:
How should I deal with my diagnosis?
My answer is always the same:
There is no right or wrong way to deal with having cancer. Just do whatever you need to do to get through this. Friends of mine have been criticized for not talking about their cancer enough. I was criticized for talking about it too much. It’s easy for people to speculate how they will feel upon hearing that they have cancer or require chemotherapy, but no one really knows how they’ll react until it actually happens to them.
This advice isn't difficult to comprehend or heed in theory, but in practice, that's another story entirely.
As I continue talking to each of these women, there is usually mention of a loved one who is responding differently than she would have hoped for or expected. There’s always at least one person in her life that accuses her of using cancer to get special treatment. There’s that boss or co-worker who believes that treatment or surgery shouldn’t impede her from attending to all her work responsibilities at the same pace as before. There are those who don't understand why she isn't back to her old self immediately after treatment is over.
It should be enough to respond to these criticisms or comments with, "This is cancer! This isn't a cold!" But, it's not. The challenge in dealing with how others process our cancer is compounded by the fact that most of us have a natural inclination to try to please others. We want to do the best that we can in every role that we play. We want to make our loved ones and our employer happy. We try not to be selfish or self-absorbed.
With cancer, however, we need to focus on ourselves. We need to set boundaries and put our health first every minute of every day. We can’t worry about how other people deal with our cancer; we have enough to worry about in dealing with the disease ourselves.
As a final piece of advice, I remind the patient to go easy on herself. The average woman who contacts me is in her 20s or 30s. This experience is likely to be the most significant and difficult journey in her life up to this point. And, unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of people her age won’t have any frame of reference. Nonetheless, it’s important for her to talk about the experience when she feels comfortable doing so and asking for help from at least a few loved ones. There will be those people who don't get it, but thankfully, there will be some who do.
So, readers, what advice would you give to people newly diagnosed with cancer or a major illness? If you've had a loved one battle cancer, how did you show support?