If there is one bright spot in my cancer journey, it is my newfound ability to overstep social boundaries within a few minutes of meeting a new person. “Hi, nice to meet you. My name is Cameron. I currently live in Boulder and I can’t figure out if I have heartburn or there’s a tumor in my chest.”
Okay, maybe it’s not that extreme, but when I now meet someone for the first time and I connect with them, I find the most awkward way to drop the c-bomb on them within the first few minutes of our conversation. I’m still trying to figure out if my oversharing is endearing or off-putting. Either way, I’m just trying to do my best and be honest about my experiences – this is who I am now, and you might get an earful of TMI from time-to-time.
Telling or not telling someone about my story is and has been a constant struggle for me over the past two years. When do I tell a new friend that I’ve made that I had cancer? Do I tell them? How do I tell them? These are just a few of the questions I grapple with when I meet people in a post-cancer world. When I first received my diagnosis in March of 2019, I didn’t know how to tell the people I love. I knew something was wrong with my health in January of that year, but I kept it mostly to myself.
My wife (insert Borat impression), was my only confidant for three months. I kept the rest of my family and friends in the dark as I went through a series of tests that ultimately led to my diagnosis. Even after receiving the news, I still waited a few days before finally telling my parents. “Hi mom and dad, it turns out I have Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s a blood cancer and I start chemo in a week. K, bye.” My disclosure was robotic, and I think my parents were shocked at my reaction or rather lack thereof around the situation.
The excuses I made in those moments feel flimsy to me now, but I think I felt that I was trying to protect those who are close to me and waiting to tell them until I knew all of the facts about the disease. Rather than acting emotionally, I tried to disclose my disease in a rational and emotionless way. Telling my parents was the most difficult thing I had to do, and I know it is every parent’s worst fear that one of their children will die before them. I was scared that if my parents could hear the fear in my voice, they would devolve into the same pit of depression I found myself after I first got the news.
Not only did I wait far too long to tell my family, but I didn’t tell some of my best friends until I was two months into chemotherapy. I’m not one for attention, so I also kept my struggles off of social media. I only told the people I work with that I had cancer because of the amount of time I needed to take off from treatment. I also think my sudden baldness and lack of eyebrow hair might have been a shock to my co-workers. It became draining to tell people and see their reactions to the news. I could see them struggling to find the right words to say. I never want to be a source of stress or a burden to anyone. All of this was taking an emotional toll and my mental health was quickly deteriorating. I’m thankful my parents stepped up and shared my news with family and friends. They helped ease a lot of fear and anxiety I was feeling about having to tell people what I was going through. I will be forever grateful for their support – I know it was not easy for them either.
When I was going through chemo, I felt ashamed about my inability to disclose my diagnosis to my loved ones before treatment began. Looking back, I now know there is no right or wrong way to tell someone you have cancer – you get to decide. I wish I would have realized that sooner, but even now, I still feel some guilt about how I handled the situation. Personally speaking, I felt like it was a crappy move to withhold my illness, and I should have been more honest with the people I love.
After a lot of therapy (I mean A LOT) and self-reflection, I apologized to my loved ones for not telling them sooner. It felt like I was making the right decision in the moment, but I know now that my lack of transparency around my diagnosis to my support crew left them little time to process the news. I know they understand why I made the decisions I did, but a small piece of me continues to feel guilty. I’m still working to overcome those feelings.
It’s clear to me now that my current dilemma of oversharing with strangers stems from the shame I feel about hiding my diagnosis from the people I love most. I’m still trying to strike a balance when it comes to sharing or not sharing my story and finding the right moments to open up. Our lives and personalities are the results of the experiences we have had, the people in our lives, and the places we have been. I don’t want to be defined by my experience with cancer, but I also know it is now a small piece of who I am.
I know that I will continue to struggle with how I tell people about how shitty 2019 was, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable with the fact that sharing my story will always be a bit messy.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.