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It's OK to Talk About the Cancer!

Feel awkward talking to a friend with cancer? It's a scary, uncomfortable topic, but by breaking the ice you can express some much-needed compassion.

Terms of Endearment has always been one of our favorite movies (now rather ironically). Note to younger generation: 1980's movie with Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, and Debra Winger—check it out on your Netflix. I especially love the scene where Debra Winger suffers through a luncheon with a group of friends who politely steer the conversation around all kinds of other topics, but avoid the most obvious elephant in the room. Finally she can't stand it anymore and she shouts at them, "IT'S OK TO TALK ABOUT THE CANCER!"

I've had this experience a few times myself. It's not that cancer has to be the core of every conversation, and I certainly don't want to be defined by it, but the reality is that it is a PART of my life and impacts many of the other parts. I'm comfortable talking about it and want my friends and loved ones to understand this part of my life—not pretend it doesn't exist.

A couple years ago I had a luncheon at my house with a bunch of old girlfriends.  We'd been out of touch for a long time. I was about 9 months into my year of treatments following my first diagnosis and during that whole afternoon, not one of them asked me how I was doing or in any way mentioned the cancer. This was very hurtful to me. Conversation stayed on subjects of their families, careers, travels, and other mutual friends. They all knew about it, so I just had to guess whether it was just too uncomfortable for them or they just didn't care.  Or then again, maybe they were all of the mindset that "it's just breast cancer."

As it happened, I even received a phone call during lunch from my health insurance to remind me that I was overdue for my annual mammogram (ouch). They all heard me explaining to the woman on the phone that I wouldn't be needing one following my double mastectomy.  

I've even had this happen at family gatherings sometimes and it can sure make a person feel unloved, lonely, and isolated. I'm sure not every cancer patient feels as open as I do, and some may prefer to keep their struggle private. I would recommend at least politely asking how they're doing, and giving them the option to shut down the topic if they're uncomfortable. It seems uncaring to completely ignore it.  Be respectful, supportive, and allow them to guide the conversation.

Cancer is a scary, uncomfortable topic, but just breaking the ice with three little words—How are you?—can express much-needed compassion.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

sunshine October 05, 2012 at 03:47 AM
Hi Erin, Thank you for writing this. I always wonder how to talk to a colleague who has a 4 year old son with stage 4 Neuroblasto​​ma. A friend with stage 4 cancer that started in the breast and now in the brain, and a customer in remission and just received bad news again that it has reappeared. The "How Are you" is very appropriate. I must say I am so scared to ask and talk about it, yet, I find myself feeling pain for them. What a horrible horrible disease. It seems to have no boundaries. I hope you are feeling well today and many many years worth of days ahead. Thank you for sharing!!
SPB October 26, 2012 at 05:40 PM
I know what you mean. After getting diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma 6 years ago I had quite a few "friends" who didn't even speak to me. I don't think that they are bad people, rather, some people just don't know what to do when it comes to such a heavy subject. They aren't prepared for it, so they skate around it at best, or just disappear from your life at worst. I found that sometimes you have to take the lead on these things. I always found a light hearted joke to be the best ice breaker, as some people just can't broach the subject because they don't know what to say. They have no experience with it. Sure, we've all done a cancer 5k or cheered on Lance Armstrong (oh the innocent days...) but when it comes to the actual trench warfare of chemo and radiation, they are at a loss. They might as well bring up Quantum Physics or Japanese Literature. Why bring it up if you have nothing to contribute? Stay strong Erin, I know its a rough ride and having compassionate people helps in countless ways, but at the end of the day, those who have nothing to offer than small talk will selectively weed themselves out, and the true gems will remain. And it is those friends who will not define you by your disease, but rather, how you fought it.

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