Talking About Cancer – Who to Tell

Talking about cancer is scary. It is scary for the patients, but also for their families and friends. Who to tell, how to break the news, what to say, how much of the truth to share. What tone to take, whether making light of cancer is acceptable, how to ask someone with cancer how they are doing. When to speak up, and when to listen. Those are all questions I do not necessarily have answers to, but I will write a series of posts on here about my experience of talking about cancer at various moments of my own journey. And I will start at the beginning, the first question – who to tell.

There are so many different stages to a cancer diagnosis, and what worked for me at a certain point of my journey no longer applied a couple of months later. Sometimes talking will be harder, sometimes it will come naturally. Sometimes I will initiate it, sometimes I will be happy for someone else to bring it up. What worked for me will not necessarily work for someone else, and I am not pretending that the choices I make are the right ones. But they were right for me at the time.

Between the moment I was diagnosed and when the surgery was deemed a success, I tried to keep the news restricted to a close circle. A number of friends, people at work on a need-to-know basis. My immediate family. I deliberately kept it quiet, for reasons that I do not fully understand even today. Did I feel like it made it less real? Did I feel like I was stronger, if some people still saw me as a healthy individual, with no threat looming over my head? Did it simply make me feel better, to be able to have cancer-free conversations with people who did not know? Was I denying the truth, was I protecting other people? Was I protecting myself from being looked upon with pity, with sympathy? Was I avoiding other people’s stories, and personal struggles with cancer? In case you are wondering, the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’. But I know there are many more reasons, which I hope to one day understand.

I told people I felt safe with. People with whom I felt like I could be vulnerable, which does not come easy to me. My mum, because despite the fact we are not close by any means, she remains my mum. She may not know much about my life, but she remains the person who knew me best for years. My friends, some of whom I have known for over ten years, some of whom I met only a couple of years ago. People I know will have my back, no matter what, but people who are also strong enough to take the news. I told people who, whether I had known them for a long time or not, knew the current me. People I was still close with – I have older friends who I did not tell because we had not been in touch for a few months or years, and I did not want them to think of me only as Lauriane, the cancer patient. But I was also careful to only tell people who I thought would not resent me for forcing these news on them, for making them a part of something they had not asked for, and did not deserve. There is a real fear about it being too much. About the fact that when you tell someone, your cancer becomes part of their lives. I worried about how the news might affect some of them emotionally, personally. It is a burden that I would not wish on anyone, but I also could not keep it to myself entirely.

I told people who asked about why I suddenly looked so sad all the time. People who commented on the fact I had not worn make-up for days, people who noticed something was wrong, and cared enough to ask questions. They probably were not expecting the answer I gave them, but I could not lie to them. I told people who were genuinely interested in hearing about me.

At work, I told my manager, and my closest friends. And then I extended it to people in my team, people who would be affected, one way or another, by my numerous appointments and absence following surgery. I was careful, very careful about who I spoke to. At work especially, I did not want to look vulnerable.

It was hard to navigate situations where some people knew, and some did not. It made things awkward, both for me and for them. I remember an evening, four days after my initial diagnosis. It was one of my friends’ birthday, and his girlfriend had organised a surprise party at a nearby pub. They knew, along with another couple of friends there, but I was not close with the rest of the friends they had invited. I debated for a while whether I should go or not. I did not feel like going, but I had wondered if maybe it would help me banish cancer from my mind, think about something else for a while (spoiler alert – it did not). I decided to go, and it was one of the most awkward experiences of my life. Pretending everything was fine, in front of people who knew and others who did not. Having secret conversations in a corner of the bar. Being asked how I was doing in a carefree way, and lying, with tears in my eyes, in front of people who were watching me carefully.

This continued over the next few months, until the operation and until the final staging. I was choosing who to tell and who to lie to. I told people that they were free to discuss my situation with other people, but still kept a list of who knew and who did not. I kept that list for months, adding names to it, making my diagnosis more real with each new entry.

It felt very much like every single conversation I had with someone who knew had to be about cancer. I struggled to talk to them about anything else, because cancer was pretty much the only thing on my mind. When I spoke to people who were not in the know, it felt refreshing. I finally allowed myself to talk about something else, and I did not feel guilty. Yes, I was hiding a part of my life, but it made sense. I was keeping things separate. There were people I could talk about cancer with, and people with whom I had to push cancer at the back of my mind, and talk about something else.

After treatment, as the months went by and my new reality set in, that I had been a cancer patient but was now in remission, I started being more open about it. It was no longer such an immediate threat, so I felt like I could talk about it more openly. It did not hurt as much, I no longer cried every time I told someone new. I started mentioning ‘the health issues I had last year’, or ‘when I was on sick leave for a while’. To some people, I told the whole truth. To others, I just said I had been unwell. There was no pressure anymore.

It finally felt like I could have normal conversations with people who knew about my cancer. Yes, they knew, and I could slip something in here and there, but we could also discuss other things as well. We could discuss them, which made me feel great. It was no longer all about me. I was no longer as selfish, only able to talk about myself and my own problems.

When I decided to start writing this blog, and posting about it on social media, it was a very conscious decision. It took a while for me to go from ‘writing for myself’ to ‘writing so other people can read it’. I only did it once I felt ready for people to know.

But in a way, a blog is safe. Only people who really, genuinely want to know about me and my struggles will click on the links, will subscribe to know when a new post comes out. It does not feel like I am pushing my story onto others, like it would if I was simply lying this all out on social media. I know the people who will read this are interested, and it helps me be honest. It makes me feel I am talking to people who want to know, rather than forcing them to listen to me.

In real life, I struggle with what to say to people I have just met. In a way, Covid has helped, as I have not met as many new people this year as I usually would. I will sometimes mention a hospital appointment, the fact that I was not able to go home last Christmas. I have not told people directly for months now. Will I ever be able to?

I worry about future relationships. About meeting someone and having to disclose this information. When do I do it? When do I reveal the truth? It is not something I can hide, as it will affect me my whole life. When do I tell them I cannot have children, when do I tell them I am still living in limbo for the next four years, whilst I am still in remission?

I know there are people who I will need to tell in the future. People who will be affected by my experience. Will I come out and tell them directly? Will I just add them on social media and let them discover the truth for themselves? Will I bring it up in the middle of a conversation, or will I sit them down to talk about it? Will I let it slip by accident, or will it be deliberate?

I guess only time will tell.