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Saying the "C Word"
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Saying the "C Word"

We whisper it. We avoid it. But as scary as open communication is, we must utter that word.
PUBLISHED February 27, 2017
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Don’t be afraid of the “C word.”

Go ahead and fear or despise cancer itself and what the treatments may bring. But don’t be afraid of the word. Saying it out loud won’t make the disease worse or cause your treatments to fail or scare your friends away.

A good two years into active and endless treatment, I often still find that powerfully scary word so hard to utter out loud. My friends seem to feel the same way. We whisper it. We construct sentences so it never has to be said aloud. We ignore the un-ignorable.

But we ignore it at our own peril. Not saying the word “cancer” aloud — I mean in casual conversation with friends and in more intense discussions with the people you live with every single day — shuts down communication and can put a wedge in relationships that need to become stronger rather than weaker if you are to get through treatment or continue to thrive in your life with ongoing disease.           

But that word just makes everyone uncomfortable.

Yes, it does. You know it and I know it.

Making people uncomfortable is just not something I’ve ever been good at. If there’s something someone doesn’t want to acknowledge, even though I know, deep down, that it really should be addressed, I'm not bringing it up.

That trait of wanting to keep people comfortable — I bet a fair number of you share it — is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to a cancer diagnosis. It’s awfully nice to go about my life without everyone discussing the illness that now defines so much of it. On the other hand, it is terribly awkward and off-putting when those closest to me don’t say anything.

For someone with metastatic cancer, like me, that silence has become a curse first and foremost. If a friend or relative finds the strength to say "cancer,” at least I have the choice to shut down the topic with ease. Otherwise I have to be the one with strength, and so much of my strength now has to go to things other than putting my friends at ease. Recently I was visiting with someone I love deeply and the topic never came up. It was strange and made me wonder how much that friend understood about my diagnosis.

At first, one or two years ago, I was grateful for the silence; I've never much cared to discuss or hear about illnesses. Now, though, I better understand why there are people who talk about nothing else. These chronic or intensely experienced events change a person and sometimes the best way to incorporate and accept that change is through talking with others.

Saying “cancer” face-to-face means we are going to talk about something difficult, maybe even something we both would like to avoid. But if we don’t say it, what kind of a relationship do we have? I don’t want my life to end knowing that I could have been closer to those I love if only we could have overcome the fear of open communication about the things that matter most. So now, when it seems appropriate, I speak that “C” word out loud and, so far, only good things have happened.
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