Before telling very many people about my cancer, I began attending a support group. There, I was introduced to a ring of people who were lively, optimistic, and dealing with exactly the same sorts of issues I was. Through my growing online interactions, I began to engage with an ever-wider group of patients and caregivers with whom I was soon sharing more than merely my story. On my blog, though I occasionally received nasty messages from anonymous strangers (something I was prepared for after many years of moderating Internet forums), I have been uplifted by the overwhelming amount of warmth and well-wishes that have been directed my way by people who I will likely never meet in the physical world.
It shows that you never quite know where an “embrace” will come from.
Reactions Are Unpredictable
Some people you know will very likely back off when they think you are going to die, or even if they believe you are going to suffer in ways in which they are not prepared to participate. I do not judge them for this because I do not know everything about their history. It just plays out like that sometimes: people walk away, or run, or hide. And sometimes they come back when they are ready, not necessarily because they did not want to come earlier, but because they could not come early. That is part of their own journey, not mine, even if our paths crisscross here and there. Often, people need a bit of time to process what your diagnosis means to them and to your relationship. They should be allowed that time if possible — and for caregivers who are not afforded the time to process the situation before being thrust into a role they were not expecting, it is important to carve out that processing time once the proverbial dust has settled. We all need the time to process what this information means, even the patient, if life is communally going to continue.
After all, humans are social animals, even cancer patients. Navigating social arenas can be difficult for anyone. Adding cancer news to the mix should be expected to complicate the process, and not just for the patient. When I announced my diagnosis to the parents in my daughter’s class, through a heavily contemplated email that was written with a great deal of care, I requested that parents avoided giving details of my situation to their children so that my daughter would be able to bring it to her class on her own terms, in her own time. Still, we pre-emptively went to work explaining to our child how people have wide reactions to the term, “cancer.” We prepared her for the inevitable questions about whether her father was going to die. And it was a good thing, too, because one of the first things another kid said to her was “my uncle died from cancer,” and there was the inevitable, “your dad is going to die” thrown in for good measure — not to be mean, but because the kid thought that is what happens, or more likely what the kid overheard a parent say. But none of that mattered after a few days, fortunately. I showed up, laughed a lot and smiled and reassured everyone that I was going to be (for the time being) just fine. Mostly, all I wanted was to normalize things for my daughter. That part, at least, worked great.
Embracing Support, Wherever We Find It
There is no real way of knowing how another individual is going to react when you say something like, “I have stage IV lung cancer.” Many times, it is an effective way to get a hug. Sometimes it is a surefire way to get a person you know, or thought you knew, to turn and walk away. And there is no real way to prepare yourself for how you are going to feel about the other person’s response. But this is not much different from the rest of life’s interactions. Small things manage to surprise us every day, sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much, but we keep interacting nonetheless.
At some point, we learn to take things in stride; the good with the bad, the happy with the sad. We might reach out as we reveal our diagnosis, hoping to wrap our arms around the other for mutual support, and sometimes it is an effective embrace. Sometimes the other will pull back. In the end, we find support and compassion sometimes in surprising or unexpected places, but it is important for all patients to realize, even in the event that good friends may suddenly pull away, that support is still out there. It just takes a willingness to ask and the openness to share and maybe it will be a complete stranger, but someone will always be there.