It’s always sobering to meet people who have just learnt of my cancer.
It sometimes comes up in conversation, but more often Seth or I raise the topic to put things in context. For example, we were meeting with someone who had a cold, and I jokingly said “stay back!” Or if I’m in a conversation and need to pause to catch my breath, I will probably explain why.
I’ve become accustomed to the ‘jaw drop’ when someone hears my news. I’m okay with that part. It’s the questions that come next that are uncomfortable. Without fail, the first question is “Are you still in treatment?” That one’s easy: “yes.”
Next I will either get more questions about the type of treatment, or they go straight for the jugular: “Well, I’m sure you’ll beat it (and/or) be okay!” People are genuine in that they want me to be healthy. But the statement also serves a basic human need to resolve conflict. We want things to be okay – not just for the subject – but because that will make things right in our minds. No one wants to live in a world where a healthy, 30-year-old person can get lung cancer. It’s contradictory to what we thought possible, thus it creates a rift. And the brain wants to – needs to – fix that.
At this point, I could just smile and say, “thanks.” But I wasn’t a person to pull punches before, and my diagnosis surely hasn’t changed that! No, if I already chose to share my condition, I’m going to provide full disclosure. Usually I’ll say something like “Actually, I’m stage 4.”
I have yet to meet someone who didn’t understand the gravity of those four words. And that’s when it happens, that moment that is so sobering. Their eyes widen and brow furrows as they realize they are looking at someone almost certain to die before them. Some people scan me, almost like they’re looking for a countdown timer.
In that split second, I’m reminded, “wow, I am really screwed.” For some reason the gravity of my situation always hits me in those exact words. I guess even in my internal dialogue I’m as straightforward as can be!
The conversation continues with an awkward “I’m so sorry,” followed by my brief tap dance about how wonderful technology is and how I may have several quality years. Then I change the subject as quickly as possible. I’ve explained my behavior, dropped the bomb, collected some pity, and concluded by giving the other person an ‘out’ so they can still believe the world is all rainbows and ponies. (For the record, I’m a fan of both.)
I guess I could keep it a secret. It’s no one’s business that I have cancer. But sharing with people can be cathartic, and I consider their momentary uneasiness a small price for that. Maybe you feel that’s selfish, but I don’t.