In 1985, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease was private and hushed. Other than a campaign for SBE (Self Breast Exam) there was no publicity or awareness. Feeling ashamed and embarrassed, and thinking that I had somehow caused this, I kept my diagnosis secret and silent from all but a very few close friends. After my treatment, my fears and feelings were repressed and locked, and I got on with my life, my family, my career and my health.
Twelve years later, I was one of the founding members of the Busting Out dragon boat program, and suddenly I was surrounded by other survivors and the steadily growing ‘Pink Ribbon Culture’! I found kindred sisters in these women, and my deeply secreted feelings found an outlet and an expression. My silence was broken, and relief came flooding in.
This year, when I finally accepted the ‘highly suspicious for Lung Cancer' report, I realized that I would not, and could not, be secret and silent about my disease. Learning from experience, I was concerned for my mental health as much as for my physical health, and I determined that I would be open and honest. But the questions about sharing my situation then arose … Who? How? When? and Where? The ‘Why’ was easy to answer: it was because I was purely selfish, and I didn’t want to go through this alone. I wanted to be surrounded with supportive and caring friends; I wanted to share this journey those who would be willing to take it with me.
I knew that my swimming friends would be concerned if I had appointments and didn’t show up without an explanation, and I wanted to be honest. One July Monday morning, after our twice weekly swim across Meech Lake, we were basking in the sun, in a coffee shop garden, with fresh croissant and lattés, exchanging the usual banter. There was a pause in the conversation and I took a deep breath, my body shaking, my voice cracking, and I began.
“I want to share something with you. Do you remember in June when I had pneumonia and I had a chest x-ray …?”
Everything spilled out, and my friends listened intently. A stunned silence followed, then a flurry of hugs and promises of support. I asked that we not talk about it again, because I just wanted to live normally while all this was going on, and I promised that I would share any test results with them by email.
After that, it became easier, as I got used to hearing my voice speak the words. But I also became aware that sharing such information brought a responsibility of making my listener feel comfortable, of breaking the news gently, of ensuring that my friends were not unduly upset. I sought a balance between being honest and protective, of sharing both the negative and the positive. I tried to convey a confidence, and a constructive attitude that, honestly, I didn’t always have. A few times, I was not happy with the way I blurted out the information, but with each experience, I learned to do it better.
The most difficult time was telling my two oldest grandchildren, ages 11 and 12. They are old enough to know about ‘cancer’ and young enough to be worried about their ‘Amma’. I told them only when I was certain that my disease was not metastatic, and that it was nowhere else in my body. I could be both honest with Good News, and truthful with concerns. Their tears and hugs were confirmation of their care for me.
I have been deeply grateful to my family and friends. Offers of ‘anything I can do’ and the continuity of being treated normally, thoughtful hugs, emails, cards, flowers and activities, have made it easier for me to cope with the anxiety of uncertainty. I learned that, for me, being open and honest is much healthier than being secretive and silent.
Peggy has her own photoblog, the F-stops here, where she posts a photograph every day.