When I was told I had colon cancer, my brain scurried to catch up with my emotions, and time seemed to slow down. After speaking with hundreds of men and women given this same news, I know I am not alone experiencing this response — stunned disbelief and feeling like you are in a dream. It really doesn’t feel authentic, yet it is. What I have found interesting is how we all differ, sometimes radically, on how we decide to proceed from that point.
How do we, as individuals, decide on exactly when we tell our friends and family about our cancer, and how do we decide on how much information we give them? Do we share this with our friends and family immediately, or do we take days or weeks to process and get more clinical information? On this issue I have heard many different responses, all grounded in solid reasoning for that person. This speaks, I believe, to the diverse nature of the human spirit.
My husband was with me when my GI gave me the news she found a small polyp in my ascending colon and removed it, but had observed a near circumferential hard mass in my rectum, 15 centimeters from my anus. She told me she had taken multiple samples to be biopsied. I remember looking at my husband and then back at the doctor and asking what she meant by “mass,” even though I damned well knew what she meant. I couldn’t say the word, though. I left that to her, and she obliged me by saying it: cancer. I reached for my husband’s hand, and then I argued with her, telling her she must have the wrong ass and how on earth could she know it was cancer when she had not even sent off the biopsies yet? I had come into her offices for a routine colonoscopy and fully expected to be patted on the head and told to be on my way and not to come back for another five years. This was not my plan for the day.
So… there was my first reaction in all its visceral glory, which I have since found out is somewhat the same reaction everyone I have ever talked to has had about their initial diagnosis. Disbelief. Once my husband and I received further instructions as to how we would proceed from this point from the GI, we left the building in silence until we got to the car, where I completely broke down and sobbed every last tear that could possibly be in my body. I told my husband I did not want to tell anyone about this other than my two sisters. I was adamant. No other family, not one single friend. No one. My husband, being the wise man he is, did not argue with me.
I told my two sisters, and they immediately made plans to come down so they could attend my next appointment. That was good enough for me. My circle of “knowers” was nice and small. Exactly what I wanted… or so I thought.
In my experience, cancer, as ugly as it is, can be a teacher. In the beginning, I wasn’t having cancer teach me a bloody thing. I was going to handle this the way I have always handled things. By myself. The thought of even sharing this with my husband’s children, the rest of his family, my family (other than my two sisters) and our circle of friends was an overwhelming idea. No. Way. I could barely function, and adding the questions and concerns of other people, I felt, would not serve me. So I stayed isolated. I stayed within myself. I allowed myself to vent to my husband and two sisters, but that was it… until the day I was given no choice but to share my news with a wise and dear chum. It was through her that I completely changed my mind concerning my decision about sharing.
Prior to receiving my cancer diagnosis, my husband and I had booked a trip to Puerto Rico with close friends. Once I found out I had colon cancer, I no longer wanted to go, but since no amount of begging, pleading or crying could get me an earlier date for a CT scan, I had a choice. I could stay at home and be depressed, scared and angry and then go and get my CT scan, or I could still be those same three things but in a much warmer climate with alcohol being delivered to me poolside while working on my vitamin D. Then when I returned home, I could get my scheduled CT scan. Obviously I chose the latter.
When it became clear I was going to go to Puerto Rico, I had to tell our close friends, Phil and Carol, about my colon cancer as my depression combined with spontaneous crying jags on said vacation would have aroused suspicion. While there, Carol told me something that stuck with me. She said I had a whole army of friends out there who would want to send prayers, love and support that could only serve to help me, not hurt me. Keeping it to myself, and then perhaps telling people after it was all over, would only serve to mask the true me to my friends. The more I thought about Carol’s words, the more I realized she was right. (Carol is always right.) Who am I kidding? I am not brave, I was not keeping it together most days, and it dawned on me that I could not do this alone. As Carol pointed out wisely, I do have an amazing group of friends who would want to help me. I even had one friend, after Carol told her my story, who arranged to have a candle lit and a prayer said for me at the University of Notre Dame church.
The act of changing my mind about who to share my cancer diagnosis with helped me tremendously. I’m so grateful for a wise friend who let me see that clearly. Changing my mind also led me to start a blog that is fitness-based but also touches on life, cancer and family. This blog has helped me see that a wide circle of friends and family can aid in recovery and provide a welcome outlet for the fears that come with a cancer diagnosis. I have been able to connect with people all over the world who have had similar experiences to mine. I love that feeling of community and support, and I’m grateful for it.
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