Breaking the news I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer

For the most part, I felt loved and supported when I told people I had cancer. There were good, bad, and ugly reactions, which I’ll share so you don’t offer the bad and ugly unless you want to.Those nearby I could tell in person or with a phone call. Those farther away got an email, subject line was: All’s well except for the breast cancer. It got many great reactions, ranging from Steven Loble in London, England who wrote a simple, “AW SHIT!!” to encouragement, and offers of – mostly contradictory – advice.

The unhelpful reactions

First among these was to negate my feelings, the importance of not feeling the way I was feeling at the time, or to feel more of, or different than, or some attitude that was going to save me because they were saved that way, or heard about someone who was, or read it somewhere. This became what I call “The Twin Tyrannies of Good Attitude and Positive Thinking.”

So, here’s the thing to know: how I felt at the time was how I felt at the time. It wasn’t wrong, or bad, or going to affect my life span. It was just part of the process I experienced at that moment. It would change soon – guaranteed – depending on where I was in the chemo cycle and chemo-induced acute pain syndrome and the mood alterations from the drugs, their side effects and the latest news from the lab. Hang on tight friends, treatment’s a wild emotional ride.

Telling me what attitude or way of thinking I need for good recovery makes any poor recovery my fault. It isn’t. Rather than be slave to the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude, I change the subject.

The second reaction to edit out is related to the first. ‘I know just how you’re feeling …’ and followed with ‘because I have a paper cut that really hurts,’ or ‘because my neighbour’s wife just died of breast cancer.’ Thanks for sharing, but if it’s okay with you, save your troubles until I feel better. I’m happy to listen when I have energy to spare.

The third unhelpful reactionn: “Life’s risky; anyone could be hit by a bus anytime.” As an aspiring writer, I’m appalled this cliché is so common. Pleeze, think of a fresher metaphor for the fragility of life and that everyone is a diagnosis away from potential disaster. The first few hundred times, my response was polite acknowledgement they were trying to say something – anything – to show they understood.

The next hundred or so times I didn’t hold back. No, the risk of being hit by a bus isn’t the same thing as triple negative breast cancer, and to say that shows you have no frickin’ clue. I can do Risk Management for a bus, step carefully off a curb, look both ways for the damn bus, cross at an intersection, wait for a green light, and jump back to the curb if the bus comes out of thin air.

I had no cancer risk factors, pre-dispositional, genetic, or lifestyle and I got breast cancer anyway. No amount of risk management could stop it coming at me from thin air and there was no curb to jump back on, no green light or crosswalk option for me now, or get out of jail or free pass for my breasts going crazy on my chest and spreading the insanity into my lymph system. So, unless you plan to throw yourself off the curb under the bus, it isn’t the same.

The helpful reactions

My wonderful big sister, Andria, is a magnificent force of nature; my mentor and tormenter. As a voluptuous 15-year-old to my gawky, thin 12, she’d say: “What do you want, a medal or a breast to pin it on.” I reminded her of this and added: “I’ve finally got breasts, and they’re trying to kill me, so now I’ll take the medal please.” Andria was on a plane to Calgary 2 days later. If you can’t be there in person, write and don’t expect long replies.

My friend, Rose Boll, author of an award nominated young adult novel called The Second Trial, reminded me that it isn’t useful to write what not to say and sign off. Of course, duh, slap forehead with hand, I know that; I practice Appreciative Inquiry, and the reframe of the negative to the positive and etc, etc, etc. Thanks Rose, for reminding me to use in Living Breastlessly what I know from Conflict Competency.

In important conversations, include a chance for a person to say:

thank you
please forgive me
I forgive you, and

I guess you modify it for each situation and it’s helpful to do empathetic listening, which is nonjudgmental acceptance of what the speaker says.

Risk management is like conflict management and crisis management: genetic triplets in many ways, and distinguishable in when to apply each. Like cancer, they operate on a time series. Manage risk proactively to prevent problems, deal with conflict if it presents, and apply the right strategies if the situation turns into a crisis.

Most helpful of all

Show up. Listen for cues about what the patient wants. Be kind and respectful. Don’t drag along any of the thunderclouds hanging around you.

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