How and with whom to share your diagnosis [1]

How and with whom to share your diagnosis [1]

At first you may want to tell the whole world about your pain, so that everyone knows what’s happened to you. The exact opposite may also be true – you’re deathly afraid that someone might learn the truth. Both situations, and dozens of other variations of these, are completely normal reactions. These are your feelings, your desires and your understanding of the situation at the time and that’s how it should be. However, you’ll soon realise that it’s best to only reveal your illness to people who will support you, who will be your rock that you can always hold on to. They might be family members, close friends or even colleagues. Their familial or collegial relationship to you is irrelevant. What’s important is their genuine desire to help and support you. You shouldn’t feel ashamed that you haven’t shared your predicament with a family member or a friend. Right now you have to focus your energy on your health, the recovery of your spiritual strength and the rebirth of your psychosocial and emotional wellbeing. You’re definitely not obliged to satisfy everyone’s curiosity. This will only empty your energy reserves and push you further into despair. You, and you alone, will decide what and with whom to share and everyone else will have to accept this.

Before you tell anyone, you should anticipate that reactions to the news can be quite different. This is determined by every individual’s character traits, temperament, life experience and, most significantly, personal experience with cancer patients, the course of their illnesses and the potential solutions to their problems. You may find that the person with whom you entrusted your bad news suddenly avoids you or, in your opinion, doesn’t show enough empathy or support. These are normal reactions and you’re friend or relative shouldn’t be considered careless, insensitive or unfeeling. In our society, a diagnosis of cancer is a shock even to healthy and happy people. People often feel confused and unhappy and don’t know what to do. Expect this kind of behaviour and don’t blame them for it. Your relationship with them might improve in the future. Bear in mind that the news will be just as shocking to the people who care about you as it is to you. People often admit that at the moment they heard about the diagnosis of a loved one, they wished they could share the load of the illness and not just the emotional stress. It’s normal for people to be deeply moved like this when crying on one another’s shoulders. Pretending to be the hero is inappropriate in a situation like this, as you’re only fooling yourself and your loved one. So be prepared for a wide variety of reactions from your friends and relatives. The more willing you are to accept different reactions, no matter what they are, the easier it will be for you. Another potential solution is to choose someone you trust entirely to be your spokesperson, agreeing beforehand on exactly what can be shared with other people. You can let your friends and relatives know that they can find out everything they need to know from that specific person. This will save you time and unnecessary grief, repeating your story over and over again not knowing what the reaction might be.

It may seem that the hardest thing to do is to find the right words to tell someone that you have cancer. By saying the phrase “I have cancer” out loud, you might just release all of those emotions that have been suffocating you. By saying the words out loud, the diagnosis becomes a fact and is no longer theoretical. Therefore, no matter how difficult it may seem, sharing your diagnosis also has a therapeutic role. It’ the first step on the long and complicated road to accepting, making peace with and living with your situation.

The word cancer is shocking to the majority of people, and they usually assume the worst. This is why you’ll need to become their teacher in all things related to your illness. The better you’re able to define what has happened to you, how far the disease has progressed and what can be done, the easier it will be for your loved ones to understand and help you. Not unlike in everyday life, we can’t solve every problem, but we can offer specific support. Therefore, you have an important role to play as the disseminator of information. A desperate and teary group of loved ones will only complicate matters and make you feel guilty. It’s very important how you deal with yourself as it will also determine how your friends and relatives cope with your illness.

Essentially, there is no wrong or right way to talk about your illness. There are as many scenarios as there are people. Talking about your diagnosis can be just as difficult as hearing the news yourself. It conjures up so many different emotions. However, as experience shows, in spite of all of these severe shocks caused by a diagnosis of cancer, in most people the presence of tumour can also bring about positive changes. I’ve heard so many times how a patient’s attitude toward life, relationships, goals and perceptions has changed. People become more understanding, more agreeable, more relaxed. Cancer patients often volunteer their time to help other people facing the same problems. In Latvia, a volunteer support group for cancer patients can be found at Svētās Ģimenes māja (Holy Family House), where current and former cancer patients help others. By helping others, patients regain their spiritual strength and confidence. Other fantastic support groups have been created under the umbrella of the non-governmental patient group known as Dzīvības koks (Tree of Life). Similia similibus curant or similar care can also be applied to cancer patients. Naturally, there are also exceptions when a patient is placed in the same room (ward) with a grumpy cancer patient and no positive result occurs. However, as I noticed at the Spēka avots cancer support camps, patients often cheer each other up and encourage one another, perhaps even creating life-long friendships by sharing their experiences.

In how much detail you’re prepared to share your experiences with other people is completely and solely up to you. However, hiding significant facts is rarely the best tactic. Your friends and family will find out the truth sooner or later. You can protect yourself from unwanted misunderstandings and keep control of the situation by keeping them in the loop. Of course, we’re all only human and most of us haven’t learned how to talk about severe, life-threatening illnesses, their treatment and their prognoses. This is why I’ll allow myself to offer some tips. Talk only when you know with whom you’d like to share your story and exactly what you’d like to say. Be prepared for a deluge of questions, some of which will no doubt be unpleasant or disturbing. Only answer the questions you feel comfortable answering. For others you can simply answer “I’m not ready or sufficiently informed to answer this question” or “I’m worried about this question and don’t want to answer it right now”. Be sure to choose a peaceful and quiet place for this conversation where no one will disturb you. Turn off your computer, TV, radio or mobile phone. Be prepared for the fact that despite your illness, you may have to comfort your loved ones as they could be shocked by the news. At first, people often don’t know what to say or how to react upon hearing the news. Sometimes they choose to be overly optimistic, even theatrically so. This might be unwanted, but bear in mind that this is a common sign of anxiety or anguish. It’s also possible that some friends or family may distance themselves from you, because they simply can’t handle all of the negative experiences you’ll have to endure. But others will be willing to help you with your cross to bear. After the initial shock wears off, some of your friends and family will reassess their actions and quickly become some of your biggest allies and supporters.

So how to come to terms with the varied and often hard-to-understand behaviour of your loved ones? This conversation requires time. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, as there’s never an ideal time. Your family and friends will feel better if they don’t have to guess and if you tell them exactly what you want or expect. The biggest mistake that I’ve ever heard from a patient is when they’re offended by a partner who wasn’t able to understand them despite their hinting with a look or a subtle gesture. It’s much simpler to just say “Please bring me this or that” or “I’m not hungry right now, but you can make something for yourself”. It’s perhaps disturbing that the person to whom you’ve meant so much over the years, can’t understand what you’re thinking or feeling. Your partner or friend isn’t a mind reader and they’re not supposed to be. By venting your anger on a loved one for not immediately understanding your needs, you can not only damage your relationship with that person, but also risk damaging your physical and emotional wellbeing. Concentrate on whether or not your friend has understood you. Try to listen to their ideas, even if they differ from your own. For instance, if your friends seem to be overly optimistic, then ask them why. The truth will no doubt be somewhere in the middle. Try to talk about your feelings, anxieties and fears as openly as possible. Over time you’ll understand that openness by both parties can have a healing effect. Similarly, give your loved ones time to understand and process the information you’ve given them. They’ll need time to understand what’s happened and what will happen in the future. Don’t make premature judgements about the reactions of your loved ones.

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