About 12 million people in the United States have survived cancer, and each person has a story to share if he or she wishes to do so.
Some people are more inclined to share information about their cancer diagnosis and treatment. Others may prefer to keep details private or may feel uncomfortable talking about specific parts of the body. Or, the topic may be too painful or too recent to discuss.
Telling other people about a cancer experience involves sharing personal information, which is an individual choice. It is always your decision how much to share, regardless of any questions or probing. Some people decide to share their stories to help raise awareness about cancer and to help make a difference in cancer policy, legislation, research, and funding. Read more about being a cancer advocate.
Physical changes, such as a scar or noticeable or prolonged weight and hair loss, may cause people to ask questions. Thinking about your response ahead of time may help you feel more prepared to respond.
Whom and when to tell
First, decide whom to tell and under what circumstances. Explain only as much as you need to in each situation. For example, your employer may need to know some, but not all of the information to support a schedule change or shift in job responsibilities. Read more about cancer and workplace issues. You may, however, find it appropriate to share intimate details about your emotional journey or cancer treatment with trusted friends and family.
How to start
Some people find it helpful to write down the specifics they wish to share ahead of timeâespecially those surrounding job-related conversations. Include as much detail or information as is necessary for the situation. After writing it down, practice telling the story out loud. Start first by saying the story out loud to yourself, then to a trusted friend or family member.
When writing out the story, anticipate what questions or reactions you may receive and decide as best you can ahead of time how to respond. If a person wants to help, think of what help you may need and be clear in expressing your wishes and desires. Some people may ask questions that may feel intrusive and you may feel uncomfortable sharing information. On the other hand, you may be relieved and unburdened to find a compassionate, interested person with whom you can share as much of your story as you like and receive encouragement and support in return.
You may decide to share your story one day but feel different about sharing it at a later time. Give yourself the freedom and flexibility to say what feels right at the moment. You may choose to be forthcoming with one individual but not with another. Remember that you may change your mind about sharing once a conversation starts.
Children know when something is not right or has changed. If the situation is not explained to them honestly, they will often come up with their own explanations that may be inaccurate and upsetting. It is important to communicate with them, listen to them, and make sure they understand what is happening. Give them information in small doses and leave time for questions. Questions should be answered honestly, even if this means you don't know the answer and need to follow-up later. Read more about talking with your children and how a child understands cancer.
Other people's reactions
Many people hesitate mentioning a cancer experience for fear of how other people might react. People react differently to potentially difficult or upsetting news. Begin by telling someone you have something important to share. Then do so in a stress-free environment where each of you is relaxed and ready to listen.
Even in the best of circumstances, talking about specific topics like a cancer diagnosis and treatment will cause some people to avoid conversation. They may abruptly change the subject or stop the conversation. This reaction does not reflect on you and your situation. Some people do not know what to say, how to react, or are afraid to say anything that could upset or hurt you. Or, your story may be a reminder of someone else's fears about cancer or trigger a memory of a previous loss.
You may also be concerned that people will feel sorry for you or will share stories about other people they know with cancer. Some people may even tell you how to feel and what to do. Again, people's reactions usually reflect their own fears about cancer. On the other hand, you may find unexpected support and encouragement from a person and some relationships may grow stronger. The important thing to remember is that only you can decide how, when, and with whom you want to share your feelings and experiences with cancer.
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Last Updated: February 18, 2011