I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. It was a bit of a blur and, initially, nobody really knew how bad it was. For a while, I didn’t know if it had been caught early or whether it had spread throughout my body. But I had to share the news. I felt obligated to tell those close to me.
When I started telling people I was quite calm, matter-of-fact, even. I told myself I wasn’t worried because I didn’t have all the facts. But as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing. In reality, I was probably more numb than worried. I had no idea what the future held, what treatments I would or wouldn’t have, or whether I would live to see my children grow old.
Amid the blur of appointments and awkward conversations, the strangest thing I remember was how people treated me. And the one thing that really stays with me was when a very close friend said: “I wish you hadn’t told me you have cancer. I don’t know how to treat you now.” And then we talked about how awkward my diagnosis made her feel.
Now don’t get me wrong, sympathy was the last thing I wanted. But consoling others about my bad news somehow didn’t feel quite fair. It didn’t stop me telling others but as the word got round, it became more apparent that people just don’t know how to deal with it when their loved ones get diagnosed with cancer.
Another friend just avoided me altogether, confessing to my husband that she didn’t call because she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t even ask him how I was, wish me well, or ask to speak to me.
When people did talk to me, I didn’t always want to hear what they had to say. At the top of this list was "I’ll pray for you". I appreciate that some people may want to hear this but, frankly, it irritated me. I didn’t need praying for. I needed treatment.
Speaking of treatment; the world and his wife seemed to have an opinion on that, too. People asked me what therapies I was having and many suggested alternatives. Others shared their theories on what caused cancer. They told me to cut down on certain foods, to wear looser bras or to stop working so hard. Did I find this helpful? Of course not! I felt like people were suggesting the cancer diagnosis was my fault. That I’d brought it on myself and that I didn’t know what was best for my own body.
Being told I was brave irked too. Was I expected to break down and cry every five minutes? Or should I carry on as best I could? Bravery is for those choosing to face something head-on. I didn’t really have a choice.
People who hear my story consistently use the words 'brave' and 'strong'. But I didn’t feel either of these things. I let the medical profession do their job so I could do mine. I took one day at a time.
But all that being said, it wasn’t all bad. Some people were able to offer genuine words of wisdom.
The first was when a random woman at a spa told me about her grandmother’s cancer. She’d been diagnosed 20 years ago and was still going strong. At this point, I didn’t know the results of any of my tests, and this was exactly what I wanted to hear. Other people got through it, so I could too!
Another thing that stuck in my mind was a friend saying “I’m sorry you have to go through this.” There was no pity or judgment. She was genuinely sorry for my experience, without feeling sorry for me.
The final, standout example is when my 11-year-old daughter told me, “Mummy, if you die I will be able to look after myself, I will be OK.” To some this could seem callous but for me, it directly addressed a major concern: What would happen to my family if I weren’t there? I felt reassured by her words.
Ultimately, though, I didn’t wanted to be treated like a leper – nor did I want to be approached with caution. Those who treated me as they did before my diagnosis were the most helpful. They asked how I was, but didn’t pry. They were there to listen, but didn’t judge. They helped me when I asked, and sometimes when I didn’t.
Isn’t that all we want from our friends anyway?
Dr. Shara Cohen owns Cancer Care Parcel, which provides gifts, information and resources to those affected by cancer and gives loved ones a way to reach out, even if they don’t necessarily have the right words.