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Expect Pull-Back Along with the Embrace – Part 2

We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

Click here to read Part 1 of Expect Pull-Back Along with the Embrace.

I may never forget the first time that I told a friend, face to face, that I had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer and watched his eyes well with tears. It must be a truly shocking thing to hear from someone you care about, even from someone you barely know, and I admit that at times I even felt a bit guilty for sharing the news. One thing you cannot anticipate is the baggage with which such information is received. Many people — probably most, actually — have been affected in some way by cancer. It is that experience with the family friend, the uncle or niece or second cousin at the very least, but increasingly a member of the nuclear family. Someone has struggled with cancer that each of us knows, whether we realize it or not, and depending on the level of that relationship and even more so on the outcome of the treatment, a person who hears of your own diagnosis is going to react in very different ways.

Prior Experiences Affect People’s Reactions

A lot of people I told had been deeply affected by their prior experiences. Some went to the “oh, you’ve GOT this!” place because they had seen cancer beaten before and, frankly, I looked darn great. Plus, such platitudes are supposed to be affirming, probably coming from a place of good intentions. Others melted, either outright crying or struggling to convey how hard they knew this journey was going to be. People occasionally went straight to advice, almost universally ill-conceived but still somehow genuine, about how to approach my treatment and what to avoid. One close (but geographically distant) friend told me all about his own experience with cancer treatment that I had known absolutely nothing about, putting me in the position of momentary bewilderment, but ultimately shared compassion. I was flooded with stories that offered sympathy and hope as well as proactive engagement, commonality, and a true sense of fraternity.

Reactions Can Range from Odd to Insensitive

There were some progressively odd responses to my diagnosis as well. A small number of acquaintances with whom I had regular interactions began actively dodging me, at least one person deliberately avoiding eye contact or speaking directly to me for a solid year. Another responded to the news of my diagnosis with a horrific story of her own, in detail, about the death of a loved one from cancer. That type of response, the “You’ve got cancer? Well, I’ve got a story for YOU!” response, became almost comically common and I began to rank who could offer me the most inappropriately gruesome story to alert me to the horrors that lay ahead for me and my family. I realized that these were coping reactions for those people, a way that they dealt with their own shock and fear, and were not targeting me personally. In a way, they were talking to themselves, just unfortunately aloud and to my face.

It took me some work to find a way to share the information of my diagnosis and not take the responses personally. I understood intuitively, of course, that everyone receives information differently and filters it through their own experience. In most cases, however, and the more openly I discuss what is going on with my treatment, I have found that the act of sharing my personal story has brought with it a surprising influx of kindness and emotional support.

Check out Part 3 of Expect Pull-Back Along with the Embrace.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.