How do you say, “You have cancer”?

year of surrender blog

One of the mantras you often hear after your cancer diagnosis is, “Everyone is different.”

How will I react to chemo? “Everyone is different.”

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Will radiation make me tired? “Everyone is different.”

This is as true on a psychological basis as it is a physical one. We all bring our personalities and our pasts into that treatment room. Me? I’ve always been deeply anxious about the things I can control — such as getting the facts right in a story, deadlines, figuring out how to crack the code of Google analytics — but when it comes to things I can’t control, I’m very much “what will be, will be.”

I have a young friend Amy who’s the exact opposite. Typos? A proofreader will catch them. Income tax? It will get filed eventually. However, a pain in her side? It must be cancer. A friend doesn’t get back to her three hours after a text? The friend’s dead.

Florence Gosse
In the summer of 1962, my mother was pregnant with me when she brought my six siblings to visit her parents, Art and Florence Gosse.

One of the greatest influences in my life was my maternal grandmother, Florence Gosse. She’d had a very tough childhood in Newfoundland. Her mother died when she was young and her father was a fisherman. Not only was he gone for months at a time but he was also a gambler; in other words, not a very good provider. Like many women of her generation, who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, she had a strong character wrapped in a stately outer layer of calm certitude. Whinging grandchildren were not allowed.

Somehow, perhaps because I admired her so much, her motto became my motto: “Life’s unfair. Get over it.”

So I’d say the acceptance part of my breast cancer diagnosis took me a few minutes. After all, it was not hard to pick up on the anxiety exuded by the technician who did the mammogram, especially when she called the reception desk to book an ultrasound that afternoon and a biopsy the next morning. Her sense of urgency gave me an inkling that what she saw on the screen was not just a harmless lump.

My sister, mother and maternal grandparents (including Florence) died of cancer. Another sister had cancer when she was 18; my father’s brother and his two daughters had had cancer, too. Why would I think it wouldn’t happen to me?

Still, I tried to approach the possibility in my non-confrontational sideways style. As the biopsy — which felt like someone painlessly using a staple-gun on my frozen breast — concluded, I said to the radiologist that if it was cancer I’d deal with it. If it wasn’t cancer, would I still need to get the lump removed?

In the kindest, gentlest voice possible, he told me that he was almost certain it was cancer. But, he told me, you’ll be all right. You are about to have your life consumed by the medical system and it will take care of you. You don’t have to worry about that right now.

Then he told me that he, too, had once been faced with a serious medical crisis. He found the strength to push through it and so would I.

It was the perfect message for me. I needed not only the reassurance but also the abdication of sole responsibility and control. This wasn’t going to be my problem to fix on my own.

I asked some of my “cancer friends” how they were given the news.

“My oncologist didn’t hold back any punches but he did it in such a nice way,” Sile (pronounced Sheila) says. “He told me everything but that made me feel like he was on top of it.

“I don’t know whether it was because I’m not normally a negative person, but I was able to think that the worst — the diagnosis — had already happened. I felt right from the word go I’d be okay.”

Catherine’s radiologist conveyed a sense of urgency during Catherine’s annual mammogram. Because Catherine has “dense breasts,” it wasn’t uncommon to need repeated mammograms; Catherine wasn’t overly concerned when one mammogram was followed by another, and another. The penny didn’t fall until the radiologist said, “Make an appointment with your doctor immediately and have your doctor make a recommendation to a breast surgeon.”

Those orders were followed with a big vote of confidence in today’s cancer treatments. “It’s not like it used to be,” the radiologist said. “Most women with breast cancer have great outcomes. This is just a bump in the road.”

It was the perfect approach for Catherine, too. “I never liked anyone saying ‘you’re going to be OK’ because it’s bullshit. I’d rather they say, ‘You’re probably going to be OK.’ I don’t want anyone to give me a promise because then you can’t trust them.”

This isn’t to say that the three of us didn’t have deep anxiety about cancer, or sloughed it off as no big thing. But each of us, from that first day, tried to find ways to steer our thoughts away from worry and fear.

Jedediah Island
The Gulf Islands were the perfect place to absorb the news I had breast cancer. Every time a panicked thought came into my mind, I changed the inner monologue to "I am strong, I am strong, I am strong." - Martha Perkins

I remember back to that first weekend as my husband and I absorbed the radiologist’s words. I have a tendency to loop things in my mind and I didn’t want a negative loop to be the one that stuck. So every time I caught myself saying, “Oh my God, I have cancer!” I switched it to, “I am strong, I am strong, I am strong.”

I couldn’t control the cancer but I could influence the way I thought about it, especially at this early stage before the biopsy results. I made a pact with myself: the outcome might be a great unknown but, whatever happened, I’d have the strength to deal with it. 

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