The Value in Venting

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Here's how I learned to talk about my cancer.

image of cancer survivor and blogger, Khevin Barnes

It’s likely that you know someone who is quick to share their opinions on any subject at any time. It may be that friend or neighbor or family member who simply has to speak out and convey their point of view, with limited regard for the ideology of others.

And then there’s the quiet and controlled listener who stoically absorbs the incisive messages of others in order to avoid the conflict that may ensue. When it comes to talking about my cancer, I’ve been both.

But there is another avenue for expressing our deepest feelings and beliefs with no requirements attached, and there is no need for a response, support or refutation from those on the receiving end.

It’s simply called “venting”, and I’ve discovered as a man with a rare version of cancer, that at the right time and place and circumstances, this way of expression can be a powerful panacea for relieving the stress of having a life-threatening disease. Venting our frustrations to receptive and compassionate listeners can often benefit both the giver and the receiver, especially when some shared experiences are covered.

I’ve found that in the world of cancer survival, there is much more that I have in common with other people than I would have dreamed of before my diagnosis of male breast cancer. And when I find the opportunity to vent with others who share any form of this disease, the channel of communication is nonjudgmental and uncensored. And somehow, I often feel better afterward.

I was always the “quiet one” in class during my school days, listening intently to the ruckus in the room and hoping that the teacher wouldn’t call on me. It seems to me that the words “shy” and “introverted” would apply to me in my youth. And while it may seem odd that I chose a career on stage as both a magician and musician as my life's work, it was precisely that choice which allowed me the opportunity to share my feelings with others in a relatively safe setting.

Psychologists tell us that there is a significant distinction between being shy and being introverted. Introverts feel energized by time alone while shy people often want to connect with others, but don't know how, or can’t tolerate the anxiety and fear of negative judgment that comes with human interaction. Cancer doesn’t distinguish between the two. It compels all of us to examine our feelings and fears, and when it feels right, to talk openly about them.

In a sense, when you talk to one cancer patient you are talking to all of us; every man or woman who has cancer in their lives. After nearly nine years of reading and writing about male breast cancer, I’ve come to realize that our similarities as survivors are far greater than our differences.

I’ve found a number of online groups and websites that offer a place for both men and women to vent our frustrations and concerns with other cancer survivors. It was through social media that I discovered my first small group of men with breast cancer to talk with.Unfortunately, the number of men diagnosed with breast cancer has doubled since my own diagnosis in 2014. But that is, in part, because we have reached out as a group in a world-wide effort, reminding men to be aware that breast cancer exists in males and that a simple self-breast-check should be part of our health routine.

Awareness saves lives. And for those of us with a breast cancer diagnosis, a safe place to vent our feelings can be a useful and empowering tool. “Venting”, I’ve discovered, doesn’t always need to be loud or pain-filled or fear-driven, although all of those emotions can be part of the cancer experience.

The only requirement for a good vent, it seems to me, is to find another set of ears. Along with simple, unfiltered honesty.

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