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Cancer Survivorship: Who Are You Going To Tell?

When and where to mention (or not mention) your ongoing cancer survivorship story?
PUBLISHED February 19, 2019
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.

Who do we tell what we are? If you are still here today to read this, then you are a cancer survivor. Frighteningly, that is a label not all of us get to keep, or rather, some of us get to keep it longer than others. That is a touchy point we tend to shy away from. Some of us, even those of us with the "same" cancer, will live longer than others. We can all relate to the fear and anxiety of a cancer diagnosis as well as the struggle of deciding when to be quiet and when to share our story. And—wait for it— how much of our story "should" we share?

I was worn down, worried and upset after treatment. Many people treated me normally as soon as my hair began to grow back (most of it had fallen out during chemotherapy). Did people think I was talking too much about my cancer now that it was behind me? I am willing to bet that my spouse and children did, but I don't know for sure. One of the smartest sayings I have ever heard is, "What other people think of you is none of your business." Still, that is not a complete answer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) helps cancer survivors figure out how to talk to others. Sometimes I felt alone in a room full of people. I do know that I still felt very much involved in surviving cancer even when surgeries and chemotherapy were over. I was on hormone therapy for five years after that! The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is another resource that offers help for coping with emotions after treatment.

Fast-forward eight years. I recently learned I have a genetic mutation, not a cancer recurrence, which is going to result in more cancer treatment—a prophylactic double mastectomy. I also chose breast reconstruction (still in process) because, well, I just wanted to look "normal." If you think it is sometimes awkward to talk about cancer a few weeks, months, or even years after treatment, I am years out! Who do I talk to now?

I believe in the goodness of people. I was very fortunate. While applying for a short-term contract position, I told my prospective employer that I would need time off if they chose to hire me. I had two more breast cancer reconstruction procedures on the calendar. They hired me! A fellow survivor ran into a similar work situation and was hired as well. Sometimes people are more compassionate than we realize.

But, again, who and how much do I tell?

Nobody wants to be negative and each one of us sometimes needs to discuss our cancer circumstances with someone else. Every survivor can handle this in a way that works best for them. Here is just what I personally do: If someone asks me for an update, I share. If someone is discussing a similar situation they are in, I offer my input based on my own experiences (when I believe it might be helpful to them). And finally, if I need to talk about my own side effects, pain, worry, questions or upcoming procedure, I share with my spouse, Facebook support group, talk therapist or a very close friend.

There is no single correct answer. Together we can support each other and collectively open the discussion about sharing our ongoing concerns. Together we can give ourselves and each other the gift of time to continue to heal and move forward with our lives.

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