It’s not you, it’s them — how other people might react to your illness — and how to handle them
I’m not yet at the stage of having to tell people I’m dying. But in 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and discovered that a problem shared was not always a problem halved. People can react in different ways when you break the news that you have a life-limiting condition.
In our book The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer, Liz O’Riordan and I commented that most of the friends and relatives we told about our cancer were wonderful. Typically, they had an initial reaction of shock (e.g. swearing, crying and more swearing). But after that, they were able to support us and our partners when we needed it, and in a flexible way that responded to the ups and downs we were all having.
Hopefully, the people you tell will be just as sensitive and supportive. But you may occasionally come across the following characters:
Some people will react to your news by avoiding you and withdrawing from your friendship. They look away if they see you, and stop returning texts or phone calls.
Perhaps they just don’t know what to say, or they worry that they will say the wrong thing so they decide saying nothing is preferable.
Perhaps they find it distressing to see you sick, upset or in pain (they may have looked on you as a parent figure, mentor or role model). If they identify strongly with you (e.g. were in the same class at school), your terminal illness may trigger them to start thinking about their own mortality.
How to handle the blocker
If you want to stay in contact, first start by acknowledging that you feel hurt, angry or rejected. Putting your reaction aside, here are some suggestions:
- Try phoning or emailing them. Tell them you know it’s not easy for them, and that you wouldn’t know what to do or say if they got a terminal illness, but you still want to see or hear from them.
- Ask them to do small, specific things to help you (e.g. picking up shopping), so they can feel useful and involved without having to engage too much emotionally.
- Ask them if they want you to send them some factual information about your illness and its likely trajectory.
- Ask one of your other friends or relatives to talk to them.
Rarely, you may have to accept that this person cannot deal with your illness at this time in their life. This can be upsetting, especially if the person was close to you before your diagnosis. Remember, you’ve done nothing wrong and they are staying away for their own personal reasons, however unfathomable that may seem to you.
Someone else’s terminal illness is often a talking point — but few of us want to be that talking point. Bad news travels fast, and whilst gossips are usually well-meaning, it can feel that the person is trading on your misfortune and perhaps breaching the confidence you placed in them.
You may not have minded friend X knowing the details of your illness and its likely outcome — but you really didn’t want acquaintances Y and Z to be discussing your personal business in the pub or the photocopier queue.
How to handle the gossip
It helps to accept (if you can) that your friends may need to talk about you when you’re not there to help them cope with your diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean they have unlimited right to share your news with anyone and everyone. Try these suggestions:
- Specifically ask your friends or colleagues not to talk about you with people you don’t know or haven’t yet told.
- When you tell people your news, be explicit about who knows what. This is especially important if you are delaying telling children or certain relatives.
- Once you have a reasonable idea of how your illness is likely to progress, draft an email explaining what is going on, and perhaps saying that you aren’t well enough to answer detailed questions but you hope this information gives some clarity. Keep that email to send on to others who may learn of your diagnosis later.
Mr (or Ms) Bean
It is almost inevitable that somebody (with the best of intentions) is going to say something really crass. The following statements are examples of things people said to Liz or me when we were diagnosed with cancer. Have a laugh about them, and brace yourself for the time when someone says something even worse to you!
- Stiff-upper-lip comments: “Be strong”, “Chin up!”, “Think positive”.
- Glass-half-full comments “It could be worse”, “Be thankful for the time you’ve got”.
- Mystic-religious comments: “Everything happens for a reason”, “I’ll be praying for you”.
- Its-your-own-fault comments: “I warned you about the smoking/alcohol/fast-lane lifestyle”, “Breast cancer is caused by a negative relationship with your own mother”.
- Foot-in-it comments: “I thought you were supposed to lose weight when you were dying”, “Oh, so you’re still around?”.
How to handle Mr/Ms Bean
There isn’t much you can do to stop people saying the wrong thing. The plain fact is, some people are emotionally challenged, bad at reading social situations, inexperienced in dealing with serious illness, or just plain insensitive. Perhaps the best advice is make sure you keep a tight hold of that sense of humour!
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