March 3rd, 2016
| Survivor: Colorectal (Bowel) Cancer
Cancer doesn't end when treatment does. Neither should the support you receive from friends and family.
During my five years and counting of cancer survivorship, I have found that it can feel like everyone around me has moved on and forgotten I ever had cancer, while I'm still left with bad memories of the past and fears for the future. As survivors, cancer is a big part of our lives and it's impossible for us to forget, especially when we are reminded by news stories, fundraising events, annual scans and check-ups, and so on. And while all this is going on inside our heads, none of it is showing on the outside, so to the rest of the world we seem fine. But we're not always fine.
It's easy to think "how can people not realise I'm still hurting?" when you spend so much time inside your own head with the anxiety and fear of recurrence. Cancer can feel all-encompassing for us-it is behind us in our past, but we fear it could be in our future, and reminders are everywhere in our present. But how do you talk to people about this thing, which is such a big part of you, when they seem to have forgotten anything ever happened?
Well, the reality is, people probably haven't forgotten at all-- they were there for us at the time. Maybe they just think about it less now that we are better, because they don't see cancer as an immediate threat anymore, and maybe they don't want to. If we are healthy, why would they talk about our cancer now? If we aren't talking about it, they aren't likely to bring up the subject either.
So I guess that means if cancer survivors want to talk about survivorship, it's up to us to start the conversation. Well that's easier said than done, isn't it? How do you say during everyday conversation "Hey by the way, I still struggle with thoughts about cancer sometimes, and I need someone to talk to"? There isn't much opportunity to bring that up in everyday chitchat.
Mental health is important, and so is getting the support we need. Even as I think about trying to talk to someone, concerns run through my head: "What if people think I'm attention seeking? This feels so awkward. I don't want the person to worry about me. I feel guilty for making people worry."
But how on earth do you tell a new friend "I had cancer"? I'm still trying to figure it all out myself, but I've put together a few tips for opening up to someone who doesn't know about our cancer, or who we feel has forgotten about our cancer experiences:
1. Don't be defensive.
Just because it feels like people have forgotten you had cancer, doesn't mean they really have. They may have assumed everything has been okay all this time, but that doesn't mean they won't listen to you when you open up to them. Give people the chance to be supportive.
2. Choose the right person to talk to.
Choose one person to talk to first and see how it goes. If you can, choose someone who knows you well and who you trust, and who has been there for you during your cancer treatment-someone who knows already about what you have been through.
3. Set aside special time to talk.
It can be hard to try to talk about something important in the middle of a busy day. Perhaps you could invite your friend over for a drink and a catch-up. Then you can have a proper conversation with no distractions, and it may be easier to bring up what's troubling you. While you're having this conversation, set the tone for how you'd like to approach it moving forward. Do you want them to ask about it specifically or would you prefer to just know that you can open up when you are feeling a certain way?
4. Explain that this is important and/or difficult for you.
Let your friend know that it's important to you that you have someone to talk to about your fears or worries, and that it's not always easy to open up even when you want to. Hopefully then they will be patient with you and realise that even though your cancer is gone, it doesn't always feel like it's all over.
5. Approach the subject directly.
I haven't always been direct with people in the past, because it's difficult to find an opportunity to say something. Generally when I have made a new friend, we have added each other on social networks and I have assumed they eventually figure it all out for themselves because I talk about my experience a lot online-I'm really open about how I feel about cancer on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
But that's not a great approach because it means I don't really know who is and who isn't aware of it, and we still don't end up talking about it in person. So in that regard it is probably better to tell someone directly rather waiting for them find out for themselves - whether you say it in person, through a private message online, or in another way.
6. Show your friend this blog or write down your own thoughts.
If words fail you and you just don't know how to approach the subject, you could start by pointing your friend in the direction of this blog post, or another post on IHC. Or you could try writing down your own thoughts and showing them to someone, if you find it easier to write rather than talk about it.
7. Talk to other cancer survivors.
There are always people online who understand, even if the people physically close to you don't. Talk to people on IHadCancer.com, Facebook support groups, forums and other websites, who have had similar experiences. It may not be the same as talking to the people around you, but it helps to know that you're not alone. The internet is full of cancer survivors who are very open and happy to talk about anything at all - including me. Chat to me on IHC @writersam, on instagram/twitter at @teh_samby or on my Tumblr - http://www.writersam.co.uk.
It's important that we feel like the people we see every day know about our feelings, so that when we do feel anxious, we don't feel completely alone. However you decide to approach the conversation and whoever you do it with, I wish you good luck and I hope you get the support you need.
Do you have any other tips? Add them in the comments below!
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