December 12, 2022
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Photography by Boris Jovanovic/Stocksy United
Whether you tell your family, colleagues, and acquaintances about your breast cancer diagnosis is entirely your decision to make.
You never think it will happen to you. Cancer? That’s only for other people. I, too, never gave it a passing thought.
I got my yearly mammograms and they were always uneventful. But when the nipple of my left breast started going inward, I knew something wasn’t right.
That was July 1, 2016. An ultrasound confirmed my worst fears. Then two biopsies were both positive, followed up with a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation — a year of trauma right out of a horror flick.
While going through all of this — becoming educated about breast cancer, handling the emotional baggage, making difficult decisions, and following my doctor’s treatment plans — there was another issue dangling in front of me: Who do I tell? How much do I tell? Do I want everyone to know my personal story?
Back then, I chose to tell my immediate family first, which included my husband and siblings.
My parents had both passed, so that was not an option. My two sisters provided a wealth of comfort, flying into town to help manage things during my mastectomy or coming in for a long weekend to assist with chemotherapy. They were also important lifelines on the phone when I was dealing with any kind of crisis.
I chose to tell only the bare details to my acquaintances. I’m a poet, so I chose to be open to my poetry community. I wrote many cancer poems. An outpouring of cards came in the mail, all wishing me support.
My in-laws made dinners I could put in the freezer, and one of my Indian friends made huge portions of homemade dal.
I can honestly say that work was a safe zone for me, a place I could go to and not think about cancer.
I had to tell both of my bosses in order to get time off work for all of the treatment. They were both sympathetic. I filled out a Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) so I could take unpaid time off during my surgery, as the entire event and recovery took 6 weeks.
Some co-workers were nosy, but most didn’t know as I showed up to work in a non-descript wig.
Why didn’t I tell my work colleagues? I worked straight through my chemo and radiation, wearing my wig. When I showed up to work the first day with my wig, an office mate complimented me on my bangs. She had no idea.
Word got around, though. I let it slip to a few well-chosen people, but I can honestly say that work was a safe zone for me — a place I could go to and not think about cancer. It was a haven, an escape, and a refuge.
A therapist I saw briefly said that I needed a place that was cancer-free, and she was right. Work was that place for me.
As months and then years passed and my hair grew back, the difficult days receded in my rearview mirror. I felt good about my decision not to document every radiation treatment, infusion session, or mastectomy progress on Facebook. I felt stoic and strong in my cancer battle.
Not everyone feels as I do. A woman in a support group I attend says she is like an “open book.” She has a husband and two teenage sons. She’s told everyone and her refrigerator is always full of casseroles. She is happy with her decision.
I’ve met other people like her. I’ve also met survivors who only share in support groups, some who tell only one side of their family, and some who whisper their diagnosis to only a chosen few.
I’m very happy with my decision. I stay upbeat and positive and full of hope.
Last year, I received the unfortunate news that I had a cancer recurrence. After my husband and I recovered from the shock, this time, I chose to tell no one except my siblings and a handful of friends. Not even my in-laws.
Why? Because I’ve learned it’s easier for me — and for them. I’ve learned that most people don’t know what to say. Or, even worse, they ask questions that make me think about something I don’t really want to think about. Their thoughts put us both in a dark place that, quite frankly, can be difficult to get out of.
People don’t really know what to say. They often think they’re doing the right thing when they ask you about the status of your cancer when in reality, they aren’t.
After one friend continually asked me about my health, I finally had to tell her to stop and that I would tell her if there were any updates. Even my dental hygienist always asks me how my health is. I try to change the subject.
I don’t always want to talk about it. Sometimes I do, and when I do, I will seek out the person who is appropriate for me to talk with.
I’m very happy with my decision. I stay upbeat and positive and full of hope. I’m not brought down by gossip or nosy questions. I stay focused and alert, enjoying the here and now.
Not everyone chooses the same path. Some breast cancer survivors welcome questions. Those diagnosed with stage 3 at the get-go, like me, however, may not want the limelight. It may take years to wrap their heads around the reality of their situation, and having people probe them for details is the last thing they need.
What’s right for you may not be right for me. I may have fewer casseroles in my refrigerator, but my psyche stays hopeful and focused. I realize there will come a time when I will need to share my cancer with my community, but not now.
In the end, only you know what feels most comfortable.
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