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Eavesdropping on a Cancer Conversation


When a conversation about breast cancer is overheard, should a survivor step in and offer advice, or just walk away?

Cancer seems to be a topic of conversation found in many social settings these days. Often, as a person who's had a personal experience with cancer, my ears seemed to be tuned in to those types of conversations. Don't get me wrong, I'm not in the habit of eavesdropping, but when I hear a conversation that could greatly affect a person's health, my ears prick up.

Take for instance, a conversation I overheard just the other day. As I was leaving a public restroom, two women, obviously friends, were in the midst of a deep conversation. Not wanting to interrupt, I quietly walked to the sink to wash my hands. As I washed them, I heard one of the women had recently discovered a lump in her breast. She'd gone to the doctor out of concern it might be breast cancer. The doctor, she explained, wanted to do further testing after seeing the results of her mammogram. The woman went on that she was not going to keep the appointment for a diagnostic ultrasound and MRI. I watched in the mirror as her friend's jaw dropped. The friend was aghast, as was I, and asked the reason for not keeping the appointment. The woman shared her lack of health insurance and her inability to pay for such expensive tests. She told her friend she'd just keep an eye on it and if things changed, she'd go from there.

As I was about to toss my paper towel into the trash, I cleared my throat and offered a greeting. The ladies looked in my direction as I mustered the courage to speak.

Explaining that I was a breast cancer survivor, I encouraged the woman to reconsider her decision to postpone testing. Surprisingly, she paused and listened while I shared there might be another option for funding her procedure. I gave her some good information and as I left the restroom, felt I'd done my civic duty in helping, but more than that, I felt I'd upheld the unspoken moral code of the sisterhood of breast cancer survivors.

Is it morally wrong to interject my personal feelings and information into the private conversation of another? Perhaps. But I honestly felt it would be a disservice to this complete stranger to leave knowing there might be a way she could have her testing and potentially save her life. Since I was aware of a financial assistance program offered at her hospital, it was important for me to impart that knowledge to her.

Where do we draw the line, as survivors of breast cancer, in our duty to inform and assist other women? Should we only offer information if asked for it, or is it OK to meddle in the affairs of others particularly in potential life and death situations?

For me, the answer to this conundrum is clear. If I can help one person avoid hearing those dreaded words, "You have breast cancer," I not only can, I must.

Some might feel differently, and that's their prerogative, but I'd much rather have a clear conscience than wishing I'd taken time to do something in retrospect.

Survivorhood brings with it a great responsibility. Under that umbrella falls sharing helpful information with other women but, clearly, there are guidelines we should follow.

We should never share information casually. Understanding the seriousness of the situation should always be first and foremost. We should never overshare, interjecting personal opinions but instead, stick to factual information. By observing these guidelines, we can be helpful and not harmful.

I'm thankful the ladies wanted to hear what I had to say. I'm also thankful I felt I had the freedom to offer knowledge with genuine concern.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, please remember how frightened you felt at the beginning of your own breast cancer experience and tread lightly. As survivors, our goal should always be to come alongside other women with a desire to encourage, uplift, and help in any way possible.

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