How I Broke the News – A Lung Cancer Diagnosis Revealed
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.
Telling others about a lung cancer diagnosis can be tricky business. As a patient, you may feel responsible for how the news affects recipients, even though the issue should be more about your health than their feelings. Still, cancer is a loaded subject and most people bring some level of baggage to the conversation whether they mean to or not. And because lung cancer is particularly stigmatic, with entrenched misconceptions, it often requires a bit of care to share the information in a way that opens honest discussion and fosters support rather than merely opening old wounds, raising unnecessary drama, or scaring people away. For this reason, I tried a multi-tier approach, and for me, it worked very well.
Step One: Tell those who need to know.
A phone call was the quickest, easiest way to tell most people who had to know right away what was going on. This group was made up of people who already knew something was going on with my health, so they were primed for the news (at least to some extent) and were waiting on the results of my tests.
Step Two: Tell those who you want to know.
Whenever possible, I tried to deliver this news face to face, but more often than not, the news was delivered was a phone call. This was when I carved out time to call old friends who were not in the immediate loop. It gave me time to reflect on my condition, but also on my relationships. Each of these conversations seemed to begin with some version of “we haven’t talked in a while and I have some difficult news to share.” Admittedly, I did try leading in with a joke where I could, because humor is a great tool for putting people at ease and helping them be more receptive.
Deciding who to contact first was not easy, so I let a certain randomness come into play; I also asked a few friends to share the info on my behalf because I knew I would not be able to get to everyone right away.
In a strange twist, I realized that as the patient I was trying to act as a caregiver to my friends. But I also realized that most of them were pretty resilient folks, so at some point I decided to just bluntly cut to the chase and get the news out clearly. “Hi, how’re you doing? Good, good… Turns out I’ve got lung cancer. No, pretty advanced, actually, which is kind of weird…” The result of these conversations was that I reconnected with a number of friends I truly cared about and strengthened connections with friends I had still been in touch with.
Step Three: Tell my community.
I did not want cancer to be the only thing running my life, so I was not going to rush to share the news of my diagnosis with everyone and anyone I interacted with right away. But I realized that it was going to be essential to share information about my disease with the parents in my daughter’s class at school and my co-workers, people who I may have to lean on for favors or who might benefit from understanding my family’s limitations.
I also realized that with a condition like lung cancer, building a greater support community is important. And finding support for my family as a whole required sharing my story with more than merely my close circle of friends. To approach the issue of communicating my diagnosis and details on my treatment with the larger group of adults through work and school, I wrote an email detailing everything in an optimistic and compassionate manner, and then took a draft of that email to faculty and staff at the school for review.
Once it was thought through, the message was shared with all the parents at once (along with the request that they did not give the details to their children). Mostly positive results came from this method of communication. It put everyone on the same page at the same time, avoided maudlin interactions, and ensured that nobody would be taken by surprise. I would have rather shared the information in a more personal setting, but I did not see a way to facilitate getting everyone together, much less a way to avoid turning it into a festival of emotions.
Step Four: Tell the world.
Cancer was going to be part of my life, so I was going to blog it. The blog I set up was initially going to be used for communicating with my family and close friends — and I used it consistently for about three months before “going public” with step three. From my first post, however, I knew that I would eventually share the blog more broadly with the world. Not everyone wants their life to be on public display, but I believe that patients benefit from shared experiences. For most people, this probably will not mean writing about every detail, but it may well involve joining a support group, participating in fundraising events, and hopefully being willing to talk openly about this condition that has become an intrinsic part of their lives.
The greatest byproduct of being public about my diagnosis is the way it has generated meaningful new connections with people around the world, as well as those just around the corner. In the end, while some people may have pulled back, more have reached out with a warm embrace. My life is richer for having shared my diagnosis and my experiences with treatment, and for that, at least, I am grateful.