Breaking the news I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer

There were three reactions to my telling people I had cancer that I’ll share so you don’t ever, ever, ever offer them as useful to someone with a life threatened or game changing future.

First, I had to tell folks. My wonderful big sister Andria is a magnificent force of nature; my mentor and tormenter. As a voluptuous 15-year-old to my gawky, thin 12, she’d say: “What do you want, a medal or a breast to pin it on.” I reminded her of this and added: “I’ve finally got breasts, and they’re trying to kill me, so now I’ll take the medal instead.” Andria was on a plane to Calgary 2 days later. For the most part, I felt loved and supported.

Those nearby I could tell in person or with a phone call. Those farther away got an email, subject line was: All’s well except for the breast cancer. It got many great reactions, ranging from Steven Loble in London, England who wrote a simple, “AW SHIT!!” to encouragement, and offers of – mostly contradictory – advice.

Then there were the unhelpful reactions. First among these was to negate my feelings, the importance of not feeling the way I was feeling at the time, or to feel more of, or different than, or some attitude that was going to save me because they were saved that way, or heard about someone who was, or read it somewhere.

So, here’s the thing to know: how I felt at the time was how I felt at the time. It wasn’t wrong, or bad, or going to affect my life span. It was just part of the process I experienced at that moment. It would change soon – guaranteed – depending on where I was in the chemo cycle and chemo-induced acute pain syndrome and the mood alterations from the drugs, their side effects and the latest news from the lab. Hang on tight friends, treatment’s a wild emotional ride. Rather than be slave to what I call the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude, I change the subject.

The second reaction to edit out is related to the first. ‘I know just how you’re feeling because …’ and followed with ‘because I have a paper cut that really hurts,’ or ‘because my neighbour’s wife just died of breast cancer.’ Thanks for sharing, but if it’s okay with you, save your troubles until I feel better. I’m happy to listen when I have energy to spare.

The third reaction is possibly dumbest, just because it’s so common: “Well, I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.” As an aspiring writer, I’m appalled a cliché is intended to be helpful. Pleeze, think of a fresher metaphor for the fragility of life and that everyone is a diagnosis away from potential disaster. The first few hundred times, my response was polite acknowledgement they were trying to say something – anything – to show they understood what I faced.

The next hundred or so times I didn’t hold back. No, the risk of being hit by a bus isn’t the same thing, and to say it is shows no frickin’ clue about triple negative breast cancer that really likes to be deadly. I can manage the risk of stepping off a curb. I can look both ways for the damn bus. I can cross at an intersection on a green light. If the bus comes out of thin air I can jump back to the curb. I can do Risk Management for a bus. I had no cancer risk factors, pre-dispositional, genetic, or lifestyle and I got breast cancer anyway. No amount of risk management could stop it coming at me from thin air and there was no curb to jump back on. There’s no green light or crosswalk option for me now, or get out of jail or free pass for my breasts going crazy on my chest and spreading the insanity into my lymph system. So, unless you plan to throw yourself off the curb under the bus, it isn’t the same.

My friend, Rose Boll, author of an award nominated young adult novel called The Second Trial, reminded me that it isn’t useful to write what not to say and sign off. Of course, duh, slap forehead with hand, I know that; I practice Appreciative Inquiry, and the reframe of the negative to the positive and etc, etc, etc. Thanks Rose, for reminding me to use in writing about Living Breastlessly what I know from Conflict Competency, which is the point of this blog. So, here’s a suggestion on something potentially helpful to say. At the Tapestry Retreat, March, 2012, there was a session on important conversations, including a chance for each person to say:

thank you

please forgive me

i forgive you, and

goodbye

I guess you modify it for each situation and it’s helpful to do empathetic listening, which is nonjudgmental acceptance of what the speaker says.

Risk management is like conflict management and crisis management: genetic triplets in many ways, and distinguishable in when to apply each. Like cancer they operate on a time series. I manage risk proactively to prevent problems from arising in the first place, deal with conflict if it presents, and apply the right strategies should the situation turn into a crisis.

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