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Why is it difficult to talk about having cancer?

A question I have asked myself and experienced many times. Words replaced with stilted silences, awkward looks and shuffling feet.

Treatment for cancer can be obvious and most people feel comfortable talking about their diagnosis and treatment but past that we struggle as we venture into the emotional and psychological impact cancer has. How was your holiday? How is having cancer? You can hardly use the same approach or expect the same outcome for both questions.

Cancer is a complex and unpredictable illness and much is still unknown about it and this is reflected in our discomfort in talking about cancer face to face. Cancer captures and then corrals us at the uncomfortable part of the spectrum of life. Cancer creates uncertainty and unknown. Cancer shows us that life is unpredictable and unpleasant. Cancer creates difference and difference creates difficulties in communicating and over time connections are lost and separation occurs. Once we are separated it can be difficult to connect again.

Cancer is difficult to talk about because it permeates every part of our lives, nothing remains untouched. Cancer is difficult to talk about because we may not know how to talk about cancer. Cancer is difficult to talk about because we may not know how to express the impact it has on us. Cancer is difficult to talk about because it’s frightening. Cancer is difficult to talk about because it comes loaded with powerful and intense emotions and transports our way out of our comfort zone.

When we talk about cancer we are really talking about fear. Fear of dying. Fear of suffering. Fear of saying goodbye. Fear of difference. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the future. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of rejection. Fear of change. Fear of isolation. Fear of treatment. Fear of being in pain. Fear of being helpless. Fear of side effects. Fear of being overwhelmed. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of upsetting people. Fear of not understanding. Fear of the unpredictable. Fear of being hopeless. Fear of a recurrence. Fear of being powerless. Fear of not being able to help. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of the lack of choice. Fear of not being able to do, say or achieve the things we want to.

People didn’t know what to say to me about cancer and I didn’t know how to talk about cancer, a checkmate situation. I found talking about cancer difficult because there was so much to say I didn’t know how or where to begin. I was traumatised by living with the constant dread of dying. I felt embarrassed for getting cancer. I felt a failure for not protecting my children from difficult life events and placing my daughter at risk through having chemo while I was pregnant with her. I felt guilty for not being able to be their mum while I was having treatment. I felt I had to show I was fine, if I didn’t talk about cancer and the impact it was having on me I was ok.

People didn’t talk to me about cancer because they didn’t know what to say. They didn’t want to upset me. I hated the unspoken between us and we agreed they would ask ‘how are you?’ a lovely opening question. Sometimes I talk about cancer and sometimes I don’t. This gives me the choice and they respect my choice of which direction the conversation continues. By knowing I can say something about cancer was a wonderful feeling. I don’t want to burden my friends with the more powerful emotions and worries and save these for my counselling sessions but I can say something if I want to.

Talking about cancer and the impact it has helps recovery. If we don’t tell the people in our life it remains a hidden part of ourselves and this can create negative feelings and in time a disconnection. Imagine not telling them about your holiday?

What do you find difficult in talking about cancer? What do you find yourself able to talk about with cancer? Can you talk about the physical treatment and side effects or changes to your body? Can you talk about your thoughts, your hopes or fears? Can you talk about what changed for you when you had cancer? Can you talk about your emotions, your sadness, anger or guilt? Can you talk about your behaviour, your plans or how you care for yourself? Can you agree with friends, family or colleague’s how/if/when you want to talk about cancer?

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.


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