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  • Debbie Kerr

Unexpected responses to cancer

sad blue emoticons with an unexpected yellow one with a smile

While there is no right or wrong way to handle a cancer diagnosis, l still have the sense, years after my own treatments ended, that I might have done cancer wrong. Well, perhaps "wrong" is the wrong word. My emotions and behaviours during my cancer experience seemed to be different than anyone expected...including me. They were unexpected responses to cancer.

Cancer stories

People share their stories about their cancer experiences to help others who might be going through the same things and indirectly help themselves. After my treatments ended, I listened to various webcasts by people who were sharing their cancer stories. The more I listened, the more I wondered why my cancer experience seemed to be unexpectedly different.

Unexpected responses to cancer

  • Did I say, "Why me?" when I got my diagnosis. No, I asked myself, "Why not me?" Some people do everything right and still get cancer. Others do everything that increases their risk of cancer, but don't get it. Cancer does not play fair.

  • Was I upset about the news? Maybe a little. While it wasn't the news I wanted, I was happy to have a diagnosis so I could move forward instead of experiencing the chaos of looking for answers. There were no tears and no anger at the world for not dodging the cancer bullet.

  • Did I take time off work during my cancer treatments? A bit. I took time off after surgery and then worked during chemo and radiation. It was a personal choice. For me, working meant feeling productive and allowing me to experience a bit of something that was remotely normal. I was lucky that the side effects to treatment were okay most days so I worked extra hours on the days I felt good and used those banked hours as I needed them.

  • Did I wear a scarf on my head to hide my baldness? No. In my mind, scarves were the signature head covering for cancer, so I went with a wig and hats, but not at the same time. Now, some people rock their baldness instead of trying to hide it and others hate wigs because they find them too hot and itchy.

  • Did I cry a lot? No. I did, however, make a lot of smart *ss comments about my cancer. I found a lot of humour in things. Others, who heard my comments, felt guilty for laughing because it felt wrong to do it.

  • Did I get upset when people asked me how I was doing? No, I was glad that they did. My biggest pet peeve was when people assumed that I needed someone to lift my spirits.

Some expected similarities

I struggled, but I found the following similarities:

  • Were my emotions an emotional rollercoaster? Slightly. While I didn't have extreme emotions, I wasn't always positive. While I never said, "Why me?", there were days when I worried. In addition to the everyday stuff we worry about, I worried that all these other lumps on my body were really cancer and not just fat deposits. I worried the first time I went to work without my wig. To make me feel better, I took it in my lunch bag in case I had to put it back on again.

  • Did I tell people what they could do to help me? No. I actually didn't feel like I needed anything; however, people were generous and brought me food.

  • Did I get the terminology wrong or remember details incorrectly? Absolutely. I didn't call them mistakes. I referred to them as learning opportunities. Once a diagnosis is made, things can move quickly and it is hard to keep up with the amount of information thrown at you.

  • Did I count the days until my treatments ended? Yes. While I don't remember exactly when I was diagnosed with cancer, over 10 years later, I remember the date of my last treatment.

My coping mechanism

While I didn’t find cancer funny, I did see the humour in things. It's what comes naturally for me. It would make what is a potentially uncomfortable situation even worse if I am trying to be someone I'm not.

For example, when I had my mastectomy, I said I was a half-rack dishwasher. I referred to surgery, chemo and radiation as the party-pack of treatments. I once told an intern that I should have had my breast removed ages ago because I got so many compliments on the scar. Yes, I actually said these things. You should have seen the look on an interns face when I made the comment about the scar and told him I had the party pack of treatments: surgery, chemo, and radiation.

No one expected to hear these types of comments; however, there are women who have had breast cancer who will think my comments are extremely funny. There are people who haven’t had cancer who will feel guilty for laughing at my tongue-in-cheek comments. There are also women who have had or currently have breast cancer who will believe that my comments are totally inappropriate and offensive. They might even believe that my comments minimize the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I recognize that cancer is serious business. I realize that I'm not home-free just because I’ve finished my treatments. The thought of a recurrence is never far away and I believe that I won’t truly know if I’m a cancer survivor until I die from something unrelated. Every new symptom (for example, back pain or persistent cough) makes me wonder if my cancer has returned in a new location (metastasized). In fact, I could live at the doctor’s office if I went there every time I felt fear. I could also delay a diagnosis of a recurrence because I don't go to see the doctor. It’s almost a no-win situation. It’s not easy to find the right balance.

However, instead of living in fear, I choose to associate laughter with cancer as you can see in my website name ( and I wrote a book called, "When Cancer Takes Flight…A humourous look at the turbulence of breast cancer." I choose to look for the positive in things. I choose to laugh.  

What I learned

In addition to learning that laughter works for me, and it's okay, I've learned that:

  • No one has to be positive all the time.

  • No one likes to be told to be positive. It’s like telling someone to relax.

  • No one, including yourself, should tell you how to feel and when to feel a certain way. Acknowledge your emotions and then deal with them. Don't deny them or hold them in check.

  • No one has to go through their cancer experience on their own. Don't be afraid to ask for help with your mental, emotional and physical well-being. Be honest with your oncologist or nurse navigator, if you have one. Your cancer centre might be able to point you in the right direction. The Canadian and American cancer sites identify resources that are available to you.

  • No one deals with the cancer experience exactly the same way. Cancer patients and survivors can say the wrong things to other cancer patients and survivors. We are unique individuals with a cancer diagnosis in common.

Each cancer is unique just like the responses to it. There is no single answer when it comes to determining what's the right thing to say and do. The best that we can do is be patient with each other and ourselves.

Hey, maybe I didn't do cancer wrong. I did what was right for me.

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07 mar
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Thanks for this post. It is so important to remember we all react differently

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