112. People's reaction to my cancer news


I used some of this diary entry in later blog posts, but let's have the whole lot here again anyway, because it shows just how quickly a brand new cancer patient deciphers other people's reactions... this was only four days post-diagnosis, after all.

6 April 2014

There are things about becoming a patient with a potentially life-threatening illness that I knew, but they still take me completely by surprise now that it's happening to me.

The ridiculously difficult transition from healthcare professional to patient, from successful multi-tasking-woman/mother/internationally-renowned-speaker-and-author to someone who is not in control.

There are things about other people's reactions, and how I feel about them, that are not surprising; things I knew - but now they shine with great clarity.

How wonderful it is that people do, indeed, react. How generous people are, and how much love and care they have.

How the one truly unhelpful thing is people giving advice, about how I could or should cope, what I should or shouldn't do. There is hardly any advice anyone can give that I haven't already thought of myself.

And then there is this one luminous insight into people's responses and reactions, something I've never heard about but which now seems so glaringly obvious.

So often, we hear that people worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. They worry about intruding.

My new insight is this...

It doesn't matter in the slightest what people say or do.
The only thing that separates the supportive from the unhelpful is their focus.

Is their focus on me, or is it on themselves? If the focus is on themselves, I will have to spend unwelcome energy on them.

This is where the unhelpful advisors sit. Either they are trying desperately to find something helpful to say, although there is really nothing that can help ("you mustn't think of it," "stay positive," "my mother had cancer 30 years ago and she's fine") or they can only think of what might possibly help THEM if they were in my situation, and believe that it should therefore help me ("I've got this really good counsellor, you should go...").

I don't mind this in itself, as long as they don't go on about it.

People with a focus on themselves are worrying about how they come across. I can sense how they are thinking about the effect my news has on them. Or perhaps there is something too self-conscious and insincere about their words. They might as well say: Look At Me, I Am Saying A Helpful Thing.

My luminous insight includes the realisation that patients (and I suspect it's the same for the bereaved) have a highly sensitive radar for insincerity. I can tell when people would actually rather not be talking to me. This has included, to my huge surprise and disappointment, the breastcare nurse.

[We've been there already. Let's cut that bit out and move swiftly along.]

One of the most helpful things someone has said to me (emailed, actually) was a colleague I barely know and rarely meet. He wrote that two of his friends had breast cancer ("both are now fine, by the way"): one worked all the way through her treatments; the other took all those treatment months off work entirely. The point of this story came with his final remark: "And they were both right."

Well, reading that email at my desk at work, the day after my diagnosis, brought on one of the many tearful moments of that day. What a wonderful way of saying that I need to find my own way of coping and listen to it, and whatever it is, it's OK.

The vast majority of people are helpful.

They may say exactly the same things as the unhelpful people, but they say it with their hearts open to me. When they say My mum/friend/colleague had breast cancer two/ten/thirty years ago and she is fine" they can then listen to my response. Which is this: my feeling so shaken is not because I worry that I won't live until I'm 80, but because my life and my perspective on my life has changed so completely.

When all they say is I'm shocked, and nothing else that could be construed as helpful, I feel better because I feel validated in my own shock, and because I am touched that they were open enough to contact me and tell me.

I can't help but feel excited about these new insights, and grateful despite the unwelcome circumstances. As I have already said to some of my friends, only half joking: Ha! There's an article in this somewhere...


Or a book!

I have caught myself dreaming up titles. Not How To Break Bad News this time, but How To Be A Cancer Patient...