Talking about yourself is hard.
Talking about the worst thing that ever happened to you is even harder.
Talking about yourself, and the worst thing that ever happened to you, which also happens to be the one thing the mere mention of which generally sends people crashing backwards across the room, out the door and halfway down the street is the hardest. I don’t care who you are, it just is.
This is why an awful lot of people – probably more than you realise – will never tell anyone they’ve had cancer. Maybe not even when it’s happening.
Cancer and treatment can be lonely, difficult and stressful. It’s stressful for others around us as well. Often, the reason we don’t want to talk about cancer is because it upsets the people who care about us. Even if we managed to cope quite well with the experience, our having cancer may be the worst thing that ever happened to our friends or family, and they may never want to hear about it again. Not talking about cancer may be our way of assuring folks everything is all right again, and normal life has returned.
Not telling anyone about your having cancer, even when you have it, can have its benefits. But there are times when telling people your story is going to be worth the trouble, if not for you, then for the person you’re telling your story to.
There is more than one way for cancer to make us “sick.” We can be heart sick. Soul sick. Brain sick. Friend sick. Cancer can hurt us in a plethora of ways, other than the obvious physical ones. I know, because I got all these kinds of sick when I had cancer, and more besides.
When I had these ten kinds of sick because of cancer, I really needed contact with another human being who understood what I was going through. More than I needed to hear the cliche’s like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”, more than I needed to stay positive or know how much longer I could expect to live beyond my treatment , I really needed someone who would sit with me and tell me I wasn’t broken because of my thoughts and feelings – someone who could say “I know”, and mean it. It was hard for me to find that kind of help, because many of the folks who’d been where I was had kicked out running and never looked back. Many folks who’d been through cancer didn’t want to go back in to that world, because getting better for them meant leaving it behind. But I knew I needed someone who didn’t just read about the ten kinds of sick I had in a book. I needed someone who truly understood, who spoke the language and recognised the landscape. I needed someone who’d been there.
Now, even though I’ve been through cancer and treatment, I can’t know exactly what you’ve been through. But I do know this. At some stage, someone is going to ask you about it. Someone is going to want to know what you did when you had cancer and how you did it, and it won’t just be a morbid fascination. It’ll be because this one feels as though they’ve just returned from a foreign land, and they just heard you speak a few words of the language. It’ll be because they’re frightened and feel desperately alone, and all the folks they love look so terrified and helpless whenever they try to talk to them about how they feel. It will be because you represent something they desperately want to believe exists.
You’ll become a symbol of hope.
And one day, somebody’s eyes will swing around to meet yours, and you’ll see there the familiar fear you’ve faced before, and you’ll want to run away, but your heart will remember that loneliness and terror, and compassion will overcome you. And someone will ask you if you’d mind having your picture taken for the local paper, because they’d like to run a story about cancer to raise awareness, or raise money. Count on it. And one day, you’ll find out that people with cancer in your town can no longer have access to a treatment you were given because someone changed the rules, or someone decided to pull funding, and you’ll become hot with anger and indignation about it, and you’ll want to go and give someone a piece of your mind. And you’ll think about how talking about yourself is hard, and talking about the worst thing which ever happened to you is harder, and talking about yourself and cancer in the same sentence may well be the hardest thing you could ever do. But then you’ll realise you probably already did the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And you’ll know then in that moment, telling your story is just what you need to do.
You survived, you’re surviving, you are a survivor. You did and are doing something very, very hard. People need help, and they also need hope. You don’t learn about how to give people hope out of a book, in a class or from an expert. You learn to give others hope by very almost losing it, and then getting it back again.
You can give people hope. Your story matters. Tell your story.
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