I recently published a book about my cancer experience. Ironically, I decided to write the book so that others could learn from me. Little did I know that I would be the one learning.
As family members started to read my book, I heard comments like, “I know I read your Boob Buddies emails, but I couldn’t appreciate them because I was too emotionally involved.” Someone else said, “I was reading your book during a break at work, but I had to put it down when I got to the first email you wrote after you got home from the hospital. ” Even while she was saying these words, she began to tear-up a bit. These reactions were totally unexpected and baffling to me.
I had always believed that everyone around me was okay because I was okay. There were no tears around me. Everyone seemed upbeat. There was concern, yes, but nothing over the top. Someone told me they cried when they heard I had cancer and I told them that while I appreciated their concern, worrying never solved anything. I just couldn’t understand this reaction. For me, my diagnosis meant that I knew what I was dealing with and could move forward. For others (I’ve learned), that diagnosis gave them tangible evidence that there was something to worry about. They thought I could die, and I had already decided that dying wasn’t an option.
While I thought I was being strong for the people around me, they were trying to live up to my expectations and were staying strong for me. While I was oblivious to the emotional undercurrents, I have always believed that a cancer diagnosis can be harder on the people around the cancer patient than on the actual patient. The cancer patient is the one taking the actions needed to get rid of the cancer, but family and friends have to watch from the sidelines and feel helpless.
I remember my husband sitting beside me when I was waiting to have my surgery. He told me he was okay if I was okay. Months later, when I was listening to some messages on our answering machine, I found the recording that he left for our boys the day of my surgery. From the tone in his voice I could tell that if he was okay, it was just barely. He lived my cancer experience. He went to each and every appointment with me for tests and results, every chemo and radiation treatment, and every doctor’s appointment both during and after my treatments. I talked and wrote emails to deal with what was going on. He really didn’t have any outlet; he didn’t talk to anyone about it. He was the one who was alone.
It’s only now, five years after the fact, that I am truly realizing and appreciating that my cancer diagnosis was a family diagnosis. Not only is there a new normal for me, but life for the rest of my family will never be the same, even long after my treatments ended.
Now I know, when a cough won’t go away (possible lung cancer) or my breast seems lumpier than usual (cancer in the other breast), the panic I feel will be felt by the people around me. Just as I don’t want to take the journey again, the same is true for my family and friends. My cancer is their cancer. My fear is their fear. A cancer diagnosis means a new normal for everyone, which is why cancer is a family disease...our disease.
Over 30-years of writing experience, over five years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.
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