Being diagnosed with cancer can be isolating and lonely, and I felt this acutely in part because of my young age. I’ve written before about the difficulty of relating to others post-diagnosis, and this feeling fits in there. It feels indescribably odd to receive a diagnosis, as many of you know. It’s also terrifying and confusing and shocking and surprising and a whole host of other adjectives, but man is it weird. Here’s the thing people who haven’t experienced this often don’t know: most of the time, you don’t feel sick or like there is anything wrong AT ALL before you are diagnosed. You just have a little lump in your boob or some other seemingly innocuous symptom that could be nothing at all. In literally one second you go from feeling healthy and vibrant and happy, to “sick” and pitiable and weak and sad. It’s enough to give you whiplash.
For me, all of this was compounded by the fact that I was so young at diagnosis. I feel like when you are older, most friends and family members have had their own health challenges or have experienced a loved one dealing with something similar. But when you are young, most of your friends have never had to go through something like this. It can also be super terrifying for them! I didn’t have any genetic predisposition like BRCA and I had virtually no known risk factors like heavy drinking or smoking, and I know that many of my female friends went home and did self-exams as soon as they heard my news. While I am so happy that my experience pushed them to check themselves, I had this little voice in the back of my head that was telling me I was an awful reminder to everyone around me that life is short and unpredictable and, while we would like to believe that we are invincible, we actually are all going to die one day and maybe sooner than we would like.
It also didn’t help that I felt like people pitied me, that I went from being young and energetic with my whole life ahead of me, someone they wanted to be around, to “sick” and different and someone that made them uncomfortable to be in the same room with. What do you say to someone who’s looking down the barrel at their own mortality when you are at a party where everyone is drinking and having fun and living life and not wanting to think about it all ending someday? It was a tough mental state for me to wade through, and it made me step way back from my social circle. I started shutting myself off and staying home more often.
The staying home in and of itself wasn’t a totally bad thing. I’m an extroverted introvert, which means that while I do enjoy spending time with friends and loved ones, I can only do so much before I need to recharge on my own or with just Jesse. Until this point in my life, I pushed myself more than I should have to go to every party and stay longer than was comfortable for me. It was a good thing that I stopped worrying so much what people would think of me if I didn’t show up or went home early (who gets mad at a cancer patient for not making it to a party?), but the motivation at first was not from that place of self-care, it was from a place of self-preservation. I thought that no one would understand what I was going through and that they wouldn’t want to because it would mean talking about really uncomfortable things like sickness and pain.
But what I eventually had to tell myself was that if anyone was feeling or thinking this way, that it didn’t have anything to do with me. It had to do with their own fears for their own health and life and that, in actual fact, by NOT sharing with them and letting them in, I was actually making things worse. I wasn’t allowing myself the opportunity to be understood, and I wasn’t giving others the opportunity to understand and support me in what I was going through. If they didn’t understand, it was because I wasn’t allowing them or helping them to do so.
Now, I understand that letting people in and sharing with them what it is you are going through and what it is like is an absolutely terrifying prospect for many people, and they would prefer to keep what they are going through to themselves. I have been quite public and vocal and open about my journey because it helps me process and heal. This isn’t for everyone, and that’s entirely okay. But shutting absolutely everyone out is only going to hinder your healing and potentially damage important relationships.
You don’t have to tell everyone you meet that you have or had cancer. You don’t have to post on social media about your cancerversary or your milestones like finishing treatment. But you do need to let at least one person in on as many aspects of what you are going through as you feel you can share. If you are worried about this, let me reassure you. I think you will find that they are supportive of you and happy that you shared with them.
And it’s not just about getting support from someone, although that is such a nice piece to have if you do. It’s about sharing those opportunities to be understood and to understand that are so important, because it will prove to that little voice in your head that the people you open up to aren’t thinking negatively about you and it will shut that little monster up. Beyond that, people love being there for those they care about! It feels so good, even if it isn’t someone with whom you have a long history. Helping people just feels awesome, and it also feels great to connect with people on a deeper level; all those lovely, positive emotions can do wonders for your physical, mental, and emotional health.
And maybe people are scared or uncomfortable to talk to you about these things at first. That’s totally okay too, everyone handles things differently. But by opening up and discussing them you are doing two things. One, you are normalizing illness and its discussion. IT’S OKAY TO TALK ABOUT CANCER! Or any other disease. By honestly discussing what you are going through, you are making it easier for those that come along this path behind you to do the same. Two, you are giving others insight into your experience, which may help them later in supporting others or even themselves. When something major happens to them or someone else in their lives, they will be better equipped to talk about what they are going through and be supportive or be supported.
You don’t have to pour it out all at once to everyone. Start with those you trust most, that you are closest to; the smallest ring in the ripple of your life. Share a few details that feel safest or most comfortable to share. Maybe write down what you want to share and read it out loud or even send it in an email if face-to-face is too scary. And if you stop there, totally fine! That’s great 😊 But I suspect you may find that it gets easier and easier to open up and let people in and that you will want to keep going.
Take a deep breath and that first step. Let people and the light that they bring into your journey. Open.
Happy Healing ❤️