Telling Family & Friends

The time had come to share the news. I chose to be very open with my diagnosis, telling both family/friends and my work colleagues. This is an entirely personal choice. Everyone makes the decisions that work for them in their circumstances.

I figured that I was going to have some not so great days ahead. At this point I still didn’t know what my treatment will be after surgery, whether chemotherapy would be a part of the mix or not. And since I planned to work all the way through (frankly – I’ll need the distraction) I figured they’d see the hair loss and know anyway. Better to say something up front.

Here’s the email I sent them:

Subject: News That Sucks

This is news no one wants to share. I am sorry I am not able to have this conversation face to face with you and apologize for the ‘impersonal’ side of email. It’s important to me to share this with you, however, and email is the most direct channel.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this week. I meet with my surgeon on Thursday, and she will give me a date. Once I have a plan of care I’ll be able to share more, but the immediate future looks something like this: surgery to remove the lump, recover from surgery and then get a treatment plan from my oncologist based on the results of the surgery. Other than the time off to have the surgery – which is apparently day surgery – and time for recovery (estimated between 1 and 2 weeks), I plan to be back at work as soon as possible. Aside from believing that I am doing meaningful work to improve the experience our health care providers have, I’ll need the distraction. And, now with this personal vested interest, I have even more incentive to make sure their world rocks! The User Experience person in me certainly sees this as a unique opportunity to analyze our health care system from the inside out – with a true, first hand ‘patient centred care’ perspective.

Here’s some answers to the questions you might have: there’s no history of breast cancer in my family, on either side. That’s good news. Also, the initial results from the ultrasounds and mammograms suggest that it’s still in the one spot. If the surgery confirms that, it’s also good news. Yes, I’m nervous, and sometimes scared. But I know that the surgeons and the BC Cancer Agency are among the best in the world. They are certainly the best in Canada – if you have to get cancer in Canada, BC is where you want to be treated as we have the best infrastructure and the best outcomes.

I am focused on recovery and the future. I’m young, healthy and fit, all of which stand me in good stead. My one area of concern was that, as an only child of parents who were each only children, I have no family in the city. I do have amazing friends and they all told me to not be an ass – of course I have a ‘family’ who will be there for me. It’s humbling, especially for a person who is fiercely independent and not good at asking for help. Thank goodness they know me so well.

Please don’t be afraid to come talk to me or ask me questions. One of the things that cancer patients say is most troubling is that people avoid them because they don’t know what to say. Trust me, I don’t know what to say either (other than this totally sucks). But I’ve found that even in the short time I’ve known about this (a couple of days), the more I talk about it the easier it gets. (and here’s some cards that don’t suck that you may find as funny as I did: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2015/05/06/empathy_cards_by_emily_mcdowell_are_greeting_cards_designed_for_cancer_patients.html)

With an open heart, positive spirit and great hope …

That part was easy compared to figuring out how to tell my father. He lives across the country from me, and as I noted earlier I am an only child (as were both my parents). With no siblings, aunts or uncles or cousins to help break the news, I had to find a way to share something very scary with my father and not have him freak out. Fortunately, I have a good friend who still lives in the same city as my Dad, and she’s a psychotherapist specializing in grief counselling. She helped Dad navigate through my mother’s passing a few years ago.

Her advice was insightful and so helpful. In the end we did what the experts tell you to do – have a friend present when you hear the news. She ‘dropped in’ on the morning I’d arranged to Skype with Dad to tell him the news. I’d briefed her earlier in the week about the pathology results and the stage/grade stuff. She was well prepared. The Skype call went off without a hitch, and she stuck around after for a visit to make sure he was ok. He was in shock, but with her help he heard all the right things – including that the survival rate for breast cancer caught in the early stage (as mine was) is 98%.

For friends and family, I sent a similar email to the one I sent work colleagues. For very close friends, I called in addition to the email. Difficult conversations to have, for sure. But with each one I got better at saying “I have cancer”.

Cancer does NOT Define Me

Having cancer is not what defines me. Not by a long shot. I, personally, do not want to be classified as a “survivor”. Saying I’m a survivor, to me, puts too much emphasis on the past. I had cancer. It will be cut out and I will get treatment to prevent it from coming back. I for sure don’t want to dwell on that – I want to look forward to my active life and forget that I ever had cancer. No pink clothes or other symbols for me. I will support research, no problem. Just don’t ask me to wear pink or classify myself as a ‘survivor’.

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