Cancer Lesson #5: Everyone Reacts Differently

Cancer Lesson #5: Everyone reacts differently.

The doctor’s office called early on Friday, March 18 2011. She wanted to see me as soon as possible, early that morning if I could manage it.

Better to face bad news sooner rather than later, I thought, and agreed I’d come as soon as I got dressed. From the timing of the call and the urgency in the secretary’s voice, I knew my diagnosis was cancer. The only surprise was one of my lumps — sorry, masses — was nothing. The one I’d found was cancerous, and the third was an engaged lymph node (not good news).

I didn’t cry — not then and not much later — focusing instead on what would happen next.

It’s so weird to find out you have cancer, to learn that your body is harboring something that, if left unchecked, will kill you, especially when, like me, you have no symptoms. You feel as if you’ve slipped into an alternate reality, kind of like the suspension of disbelief you experience when watching a movie or reading a book.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and the analogy I keep coming back to is that of a train. You’re on this train, following the same track day after day, when click, you’re switched to a completely different route. All the other trains continue on the main line while you take a detour over some rough but scenic rails. Perhaps you’ll rejoin the fast track again, perhaps not. Nobody knows, but for now at least, this new track is your only way forward.

Everyone reacts differently, not only emotionally but physically too — this is a lesson I’ve learned again and again. The range of possible emotions is so wide — everything from anger to fear to outright disbelief. There is no one right way to feel.

I remember driving home thinking, “I should be crying. Why am I not crying?” but all I could think of was how I would have to ask someone else to captain my soccer team and where and when I could tell my family. I decided to tell my husband that night, but not my daughter. She’d just gotten her driver’s license the night before. That’s such a milestone. I couldn’t ruin it for her so quickly.

It was thoughts of her that brought the only tears to my eyes that day, when Dr. S suggested I be tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2. She recommended this course of action because I was “young” and one of my aunts also got breast cancer early, and then got it again thirty years later.

The idea that I might have passed on such a gene to my only child scared me more than anything else I might have to face.

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Cancer Lesson #11: “That sounds like something you would do.”

Cancer Lesson #11: “That sounds like something you would do.”

Such was my husband’s reply when I asked him what he really thought about my diagnosis.

“What? Are you blaming me for getting cancer?” Surely he was joking.

He wasn’t. But neither had he meant his words the way they sounded.

What he’d been trying to say – in a somewhat roundabout manner – was he thought I could handle it.  Because I had been the one to give birth, the one who’d had Lasik surgery to correct her vision, the one who had gone through more dental surgeries than I – or our insurance companies – care to remember.

“You’ve been through all that,” he concluded. “I couldn’t have done it. You can handle this.”

Well, I thought, that’s okay then.

Still, even after the explanation, his reaction took me by surprise.

I never realized he thought I was that strong.

Two years later, I’ve come to the conclusion – along with several friends who are also cancer survivors – that husbands seem to take the news hardest.

In my case, The Engineer had finally encountered something he couldn’t fix. I think now that he was a more shaken than he let on. Just how shaken I wouldn’t discover until much later.

My daughter was more obviously upset. Furthermore, she was upset about being upset because she thought she needed to be strong for me.

And I was worried about her worrying about me because I knew I would be fine.

The point is, most people won’t know how to respond to your news. Since you have the dubious advantage of being the patient, you may have to give them some clues about what will and will not help you.