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.
A two-time cancer survivor discusses how survivors sometimes get assigned an unwilling task of being a cancer educator or ambassador to friends and family.
Do you sometimes get tired of having to explain cancer to others? I have concluded that some people just don’t get it. And, I’m mostly happy they don’t understand.
I would never wish cancer on anyone, much less on my own family or friends. Fellow cancer survivors completely understand what friends and family often cannot — cancer has all sorts of impact on us for years and years after treatment. As I mentioned in a recent VOICES post, it can wear cancer survivors down to educate and explain all the time. So, how can we help family and friends better understand what a cancer diagnosis means?
Change your own expectations
Friends and family will not magically become medical or psychological experts. Sort out who “gets it” and is helpful at this point, and who is too much for you to cope with on top of dealing with your cancer. It is not your job to keep everyone up to speed. Take care of yourself and try not to let insensitive comments get under your skin. Try to hear the concern and love and forgive the details of their words at times. Yes, I know, that is easier said than done.
Steer loved ones to resources — other than you
“I appreciate your concern and interest. Here is a link.” Those who want to understand will learn and keep up with you. Several years after breast cancer treatment, I sent my husband a link to an article by a nurse who had breast cancer. For whatever reason, the way she addressed the ongoing survivor fears and worries got through to him better than I had been able to explain it. Well, whatever works. I am grateful that he now better understands my long-term worries.
Make a strong effort to explain that cancer is a marathon
Please explain to family and friends that cancer is a marathon, not a sprint, and that there can be long-term side effects and ongoing worry of recurrence for years after active treatment. We all owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to explain to others that the ongoing monitoring, testing, and anxiety go on and on. “Yes, life will go on and life will get better AND there is ongoing stress and scan anxiety that I will sometimes need to vent about with you.” We can be cancer educators. For our sake and for our loved ones, we also can be cancer simplifiers. We don’t need to drown everyone in medical jargon to share what we are feeling and experiencing.
Keep in touch with fellow cancer survivors
We understand because we can’t sleep either on those difficult nights. We also monitor for recurrence. We also cope with long-term side effects. Sometimes having just one or two people in our life who understand us helps us cope with the bewildered expressions or insensitive comments that we sometimes get from friends and family. Fellow cancer survivors understand how sweet and precious life really is. Keep hope and keep on educating!