Learning to Talk About Your Cancer
For Renée, who got me through this once. Here we go again, Sweetie.
I wrote this years ago after round one, as advice for newly diagnosed patients. I never imagined i would be where I am right now: Waiting for my second biopsy.
Today I’m relearning this old lesson
“How did you find out?” It’s a question I love to ask my fellow survivors, but it’s so intensely personal. Was it a phone call? Perhaps a teary conference with your doctor, or a sinking feeling when you found a lump where one should not be?
In my case, it was gradual. First, a stratospherically high PSA score as part of a long-overdue physical. Then the internal justification: I’m too young for prostate cancer; I’m a cyclist, that can elevate PSA—or maybe I have an infection.
The recheck, more denial, a painful biopsy and finally a sinking acceptance.
We often are initially unwilling and unable to believe that we have cancer. Some folks (like me) didn’t even say the word. Then the follow-up tests and biopsy confirm what the doctor believed and you couldn’t. My favorite doctor once described that moment as “a two-by-four upside the head”. It’s an apt comparison.
Then you have to talk about it--a lot. You have to tell others; your family, employer, and dear friends. My disease has a genetic component, so my brothers needed to be tested immediately. My two sons needed to know what their future might hold. So many people to tell, all of them have questions and many with heartfelt reassurances.
Learning to talk about it was an emotional hurdle. I’d get a lump in my throat and my voice would crack. Often, I let my wife help deliver the news. But I needed to be able to say it too. So I practiced alone, in an empty room. I would say the words aloud, “I have Cancer.” I pronounced that capital “C”. I repeated it, until the words lost some of their weight and they seemed almost bearable. I practiced a short “elevator speech” that I could get through without losing my composure.
Wry humor helped. “I have prostate cancer; it’s about 30 years early.” (I was only 45 when diagnosed.) So I practiced my patter and realized that I could say it, and more. I could acknowledge that I was very young to have prostate cancer. (The cancer doesn’t care how old I am.) And I answered questions about my treatment. “No, chemo isn’t effective for prostate cancer.” “Yes, I will lose some hair, but only in the treated area (grin)”. “No, hormone therapy isn’t like that; it just turns off my testosterone." "Yes, that IS every bit as delightful as it sounds.”
Then there were the horror stories. For some unfathomable reason, people feel a need to share their stores about some friend’s or family member’s awful experience with cancer. I found it best to politely interrupt and let them know that we were being positive and hopeful about my outcome. Sometimes that worked. But some people are doggedly determined to share bad news. You’re not allowed to hit them. The hardest to bear were the "minimizers". Their comments usually included things like, "Well at least you have one of the good cancers." Seriously? A good cancer? Their attempted reassurance never worked. But I never brought myself to say, "Go to Hell, there is no good cancer. Would you like it?"
It’s about coping. We all do it differently, sometimes alone, sometimes with loved ones. But one thing is for certain, not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. But doing so, if you learn to, may help you and your loved ones to understand and to get through the journey, stronger than before.