Cancer Is Sometimes a Social Crutch in Conversations, But Should It Be?

For years, many of my conversations have revolved around my cancer. Now that I’m in the survivorship phase, I’m trying to be more mindful of these interactions.

Even before cancer, I’ve always been the type of person who’s an open book.

When I was diagnosed in 2016, one of the first things I did was start a blog about my diagnosis and begin sharing the entire experience with friends and family. I viewed myself as an explorer, sharing this new voyage to a world unknown with people. That seemed like a healthier reframe to me and provided a platform to work through problems.

It wasn’t just writing though. Over the next few years, as I progressed through treatment and surgeries, enduring everything from recurrences to major surgeries, I shared it all with everyone — from close friends to the random cab driver who asked why I was using a cane. Cancer was the only thing on my mind, so it was natural that I rarely found myself at a loss for words.

Also, in a way, as tragic as the disease is, the danger of it all brought a perverse sense of excitement. I fed off other’s reactions, as they admitted how terrified they would be if they were in my situation and then proceeded to praise me as some sort of inspirational superhero (not that I’d done all that much to earn any accolades).

As more years passed and my situation improved, the story started to grow old, at least in my mind. Catching up with people, they’d ask what’s new and still, most of what I had to share revolved around struggles with rebuilding from cancer or updates on the latest scan results. Between my wellness strategies and coping mechanisms, I must have spoken and written about these topics hundreds of times. Even today, I’m doing my best to move forward but my health still seems to dominate so much of my time and energy.

I mean let’s face it, cancer is SCARY, especially when you’ve had five recurrences like I have. The trauma is real.

I can’t simply brush it to the side; but I’m doing my best to navigate social situations more mindfully now. For example, I’ve learned that when meeting someone new and dropping my story on them, it’s important to leave space for them to process the weight of it all. In the past, I’ve spilled it out quickly to catch them up to speed, losing sight that since I’ve repeated the same lines so often, I’ve disassociated and grown numb to the severity.

Patience and empathy for the listener are important, and so is discretion. Despite my usual inclinations, I’ve learned that not every conversational tangent needs to be introduced and explored. For example, I've found that I usually drop the cancer card when meeting new people if I’m feeling insecure (as if I think it will explain what I’m about as people are sizing me up, asking what I do for a living, if I have kids, the usual societal checklist). It also tends to happen as a result of misplaced anxiety. If worries hijack my mood, sometimes talking it out helps to calm me down.

But does that mean taking over the conversation is what the situation calls for? Debatable.

There’s also an element of self-care that’s important for navigating my social life. While I’ve been undergoing treatment and recovery, many of my friends and family have gone on to build some pretty exciting lives. And you know what? Sometimes I’m too raw to handle updates of how great things are going for others. I’ve learned that it’s OK not to answer a call or reply to a text right away (even if it goes against every instinct from my prior life working in sales).

Another useful tip I’ve picked up is for me to recognize the state I’m in and wait until the moment feels right to follow up with people, so that I can bring the best version of myself.

For example, being isolated all day in my cramped NYC apartment doesn’t exactly lend itself to generating relaxed, stimulating conversation. But when I’m out taking the dog for a walk on a warm sunny day, it’s like a whole different experience. The same applies while I’m running errands and riding some momentum from keeping busy — it just seems to take off the edge of anxiety.

The bottom line is that I’m learning to pay more attention to the subtler things because while I can’t control all the effects of cancer or the world in general, I can continue to work on myself. Learning from mistakes and making adjustments served me well as a strategy for fighting cancer and I’m going to trust the process as I continue to figure out life after cancer and build a healthy, thriving future.

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