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More Elephants in the Room

Discovering someone you know has cancer can be shocking, emotional, and devastating. While you may feel bad for them, let me assure you as someone who has been diagnosed with cancer 3 times - it is impossible to imagine what the person who is living with a cancer diagnosis feels.

While I have had the “joy” of battling prostate cancer for the past 8 years, a recent run-in with a treatable form of blood cancer certainly put a totally new light on how people react and deal with the reality of a cancer diagnosis.

Different responses

When you confide in someone, that you will need or perhaps just had surgery to treat prostate cancer, most folks can relate to that. Surgery is something people know about. They can imagine that the patient goes to a hospital, and a surgeon, along with team of support folks, gather around and remove or repair something inside of you.

People understand or may have had a personal experience with surgery. They know you will be uncomfortable until your body heals. Most likely they will wish you well, send cards, and generally presume you will slowly begin to feel better. In short, there is a comfort level in supporting you until you get back on your feet.

Puzzled reactions to cancer recurrence

In sharp contrast, the words "my cancer returned, and I must now undergo 40 radiation treatments" (in my case), the reaction is one of complete puzzlement.

You then try to explain that you will be undergoing something called external beam radiation. Once again most people are lost. The vast majority of folks I speak with initially think of radioactive seed implants. Why this is so, I have no idea. After explaining what external beam is, the next question is: “What are they going to treat since you don’t have a prostate?”

Trying to explain

You then try to explain they are going to treat the general area where the prostate used to be. You might also explain that a follow-up body scan suggested the location of some returning cancer cells. If you mention you are also undergoing androgen deprivation therapy along with radiation, the level of confusion is easy to see on their face.

Now just try to explain to someone that you will be given a shot to remove your testosterone, which in turn will weaken the cancer. Don’t even try to explain the after-effects of receiving such a shot.

Searching for something – anything – to say

It is easy to see that by now it is becoming more and more difficult for someone to understand what you are facing. In the process, they are struggling with how to respond to you in a meaningful way. At this point, I find a lot of folks just nod their heads and search for something – anything  – to say. Often the reaction is to wish you the best or blurt out, “let me know if you need something.”

Recently and totally out of the blue, I was diagnosed with a treatable form of blood cancer. Suddenly I was on the other side of the conversation and shocked not only to learn that I had cancer, but also that watchful waiting was a potential option. Like many I did not know to say. Who knew that watchful waiting applied to other cancers and not just prostate cancer?

In my situation, waiting was not an option. The treatment called for a series of chemo treatments. What I learned since is the very mention of the word chemo puts fear into almost everyone I meet. Most are stunned and like me do not know what to say.

Sincerity matters

The lesson here: don’t be surprised if people really do not know how to respond to you. And if you learn someone has cancer and is undergoing some form of treatment, I suggest it is often better to spend more time listening and holding off on making any comments.

Relax – at some point the right words will come to you. In the end, and after listening, just say what is in your heart. In the end, sincerity is all that matters.

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