5 Weird Reactions You Get When People Find Out You Have Cancer

About four years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. By the time they figured out what it was, my diagnosis had reached the fourth and highest possible stage. The tumors had spread from my jawline all the way down under my ribs. Essentially, I felt fucked.

I was just 17 when I was diagnosed. Not an ideal time to go through that stuff (but honestly, when is?), and there were so many things surrounding treatment that I didn’t and couldn’t understand until I went through it. But despite everything I knew I could never expect, one thing that still took me by surprise was the catalog of ways that people reacted.

A quick disclaimer: all of this comes from personal experience. The reality of a 17 year old going through chemotherapy is going to look a lot different than anybody else going through it, at any other age. Or just any other person at all, for that matter. With that in mind…

  1. People Will Definitely Talk to You Like You’re Dead

At its highest stage, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has a survival rate of about 65%. I had the highest stage but granted, I was young. I also had initially read the information wrong at the time, and throughout treatment, I thought I was sitting around the 85%-90% chance. The point being, I never really considered myself in danger of dying. Just going through a really, really shitty year. Others though? They acted like they were at my funeral.

On almost every day I went out, people would speak to me in hushed, reserved tones. The vibe I got was generally solemn, even if I was just trying to have a normal conversation. It felt like I was attending my own wake. — Now, I sure as shit wasn’t ready to go out partying or anything, but I certainly had days where I was out doing regular stuff. Days where I just wanted to go to the movies and be a normal teenager. But when everyone interacts with you like they’ve just seen a ghost, it can get pretty hard to pretend like everything is normal. Chemotherapy became the ultimate conversation piece. But hey, at least they were just curious. And I honestly enjoyed talking about my treatment and answering questions, when the room didn’t feel like a mausoleum. Those Q&As could get much more uncomfortable though because…

2. You Become a Reminder For Some People And a Therapist For Others

At the time of my diagnosis, I was about halfway through my junior year of high school. I didn’t want to take on another year so, I mostly just did my work from home and occasionally skyped into class.

I first skyped into my AP Biology class about two weeks into chemo. The teacher had asked me if it was alright for the class to ask a few questions about the treatment process. We talked a bit about the formation of cancer and I learned a lot of things about the logistics of cancer that I probably should have known already.

A few of the other students talked about their experiences with cancer. They mostly talked about their loved ones who had gone through the process. Most of whom had not survived. That was the first time it really hit me how my diagnosis could bring up some hard emotions, not just for me, but for everyone around me as well.

There would be other times where I would start passively telling people things that I considered normal about treatment and I could see them starting to get emotional. It’s a very sobering experience to realize just precisely how much of an effect your cancer can have on the people around you. All you want to do in those situations is reassure them that you’re going to be okay. Which was oddly cathartic, getting to be the consoling one for once. Some people didn’t want me to be anything but the sick kid, however. And refusing to fit that mold definitely lead to some uncomfortable moments…

3. Some People Are Going to Want to be Your Savior

I wasn’t very surprised when people I hadn’t spoken to in years started messaging me words of support. And for the most part, their kind words were appreciated. But there were definitely some people that were only interested in talking to me because of my disease. Not because they wanted to check in or offer some kind of support. No, these people were more so interested in making sure that everyone else knew how supportive they were. Or at the least, they wanted to feel like they helped out the cancer-kid.

I remember visiting my high school when I was about a quarter-way through treatments. I was talking with a group of friends when a girl in my year saw me from the stairs and immediately bolted down to jump into our conversation.

“Jeremy! How are you doing? Are you feeling OK today? What are you doing here?” I honestly didn’t have enough time to answer one question before a new one was prompted in its place.

She walked around school with me the entire day. When random classmates came and asked why I was bald, she bluntly let them know that I was going through chemo, before I could awkwardly stammer through it. This might have been a nice sentiment, if I had ever talked to her before. — These people were pretty overt with their intentions. Your role in someone’s life can change drastically with chemo. And there’s nothing wrong with sending support to someone you haven’t seen in awhile. But when the intention is paper thin, it shows.

These people were annoying, but at least annoying can be fun to laugh at. Believe it or not, there would be a select few who could actually take their perspectives from misguidedly selfish to straight up shitty. People who would do things like…

4. Some People Will Thank You For “Not Milking it”

Out of all these reactions I saw, the absolute worst were people who were thankful that I was not trying to profit sympathy off my disease. With others, I could at least reason that they were trying to be helpful; if not always in the best way. But these people? Honestly they were the fucking worst.

“I thought you were gonna use it to feel sorry for yourself!” Was an odd comment I got somehow more than once.

The biggest issue I had with this was, it always made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to even feel the symptoms I was going through. As if exhibiting them was just a way of showboating and romanticizing my disease. There wasn’t anything I saw redeemable about these comments and I generally tried to avoid those people after that.

But that was the worst of the worst. And it always came from people who didn’t know me or care about me all that much. For the people who did care, the biggest thing I learned was…

5. It’s an Experience For Everyone You Know as Well

If you’re looking for a takeaway the best I can tell you is, cancer makes people weird. You know to expect the nausea, the fatigue, the long nights, and all other sorts of weird and awful things (fuchsia colored piss was cool though). But as a teenager, treatment has a real effect on just about every relationship you have. Most of those relationships are going to get tested; some are going to get stronger. And some are going to disappear entirely.

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made after I was diagnosed was not telling as many people as I should, in person. — I first publicly announced my diagnosis on Facebook, and frankly, I never really thought about how I might have hurt some of my friends by not telling them personally beforehand.

It was easy at the time to see this as just my situation. And in a large way, it was. Nobody around me could understand exactly what chemotherapy was like. And I still get mad whenever I read people say shit like, “when a member of the family gets cancer, it’s like everyone has the disease” (No it’s fucking not).

But it isn’t fair to say that you’re the only one who is changed by a cancer diagnosis. There is a community around you that comes out of the woodwork and you learn almost as much about the people surrounding you as you do about yourself. So while I am very reluctant to give off any moralizing message about going through chemotherapy, I can at least say this: it’s a depressing and shitty trip that you’re navigating, but one that you’ve got more passengers for than you might realize.