When I first got diagnosed with cancer, I felt like I really couldn’t deal with much beyond myself. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that my cancer had sent a ripple of confusion, fear, and panic among almost everyone I knew.
Crises have a way of bringing out the best and worst in people -- and cancer is no different. So when you start chemo, expect your friends, family and colleagues to act weird. Expect yourself to act weird. Chemo brings all kinds of hang-ups, fears, and baggage to the forefront.
Here are some of the ways I learned to cope with others during my chemo experience:
Expect people to say stupid things.
I was diagnosed just before moving from New York City to San Francisco. When one of my dearest New York friends heard the news, she blurted out, “But I won’t be able to make you casseroles!” I thought, “Yep, I’ve got cancer, but what’s really important is your casseroles.”
You’ll get all kinds of crazy comments like this: “Why don’t you have eyebrows?” or “Is that a wig?” or “People can die from chemo, right?”
Try to remember that your cancer scares the wits out of most people. The worst bloopers often come from a place of ignorance, or of pure emotion, or of fear. Yes, you are in a fight for your life. Yes, your needs are important, but you need your community in order to get through this. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Try to be patient. Give people another chance. My casserole friend actually flew cross-country to cook and care for my family during chemo cycles.
Expect huge emotional reactions from those closest to you.
My husband has always been the rock of our family. He’s kind and consistent. He’s very slow to anger. An editor who covered both World Trade Center bombings, he becomes very quiet and focused in an emergency, the calm in the storm.
When I was first diagnosed, my steady-as-you-go husband went off the rails. He cried and cried. It got so bad that some friends lectured him about falling apart. “She needs to you be strong,” they told him.
Within reason, don’t blame your friends and family for being upset. They’re upset because they love you. After his blubbering, weeks-long freak out, my husband got it together. I wouldn’t have made it through chemo without him.
Expect to feel like you’re on stage.
The hardest part about cancer is that it sets you apart from everyone else: the wigs, the scarves, the pallor, the feeble way you walk after several rounds of chemo.
Though I am ridiculously extroverted, even I did not like this aspect of chemo. I wish I could say there was a way to change this, but I don’t think there is. I meet many who get enraged by this aspect of their chemo experience. It IS enraging to be marked out as different, but there’s really little you can do about it. People are people, and I found that getting angry about inappropriate reactions only embarrassed people and did nothing to change the rest of the world.
I do think it’s easier if you accept the unwanted spotlight. Accept it, and do your best to boldly go about your life without worrying about what others think.
Be clear about how you would like to be treated.
As I’ve said, it’s better to enlist patience rather than anger. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be clear about what you want. If a colleague asks too much about your health, just say politely, “It’s a daily struggle, but I find it tiring to discuss. Could we talk about something else?” Or if someone you don’t know says something silly about your wig, say, “I suspect you’re saying this out of curiosity or ignorance, but it’s really private. I’d rather not discuss it.” Everyone will have different needs. Think about what yours are and politely insist on them.
Be careful of the kids.
I tend to err on the side of openness, and not everyone agrees with this. We all have a different opinion on how much to tell kids.
When I went through chemo, I told my then 9-year-old daughter about most of what I experienced. Now she’s a teenager and I think she has some anxiety issues that go back to my illness. Would she have had these issues anyway? There’s no way to know.
Think about cancer information the way you think about sex information: Explain what’s going on in terms appropriate for the age of the kids in your life, and appropriate to the values of your family. Then wait for your kids to ask questions. When they do, again respond in an age-appropriate way.
I do think it’s important to tell kids something. Otherwise, what they imagine may be far worse than the reality.
As you go through chemo, you’ll no doubt have some uncomfortable exchanges with people. Just expect that, and it will be a little less difficult.