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Trish Greenhalgh 15 February 2019

It’s not you, it’s them — how other people might react to your illness — and how to handle them

Today’s guest post comes from Trish Greenhalgh — professor of primary care health sciences, University of Oxford and co-author of The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer
Starting conversations Guest post
Trish Greenhalgh and her co-author Liz O’Riordan

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:

The blocker

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:

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.

The gossip

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:

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!

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!

If you’d like to join the conversation, why not find Trish on Twittertalk to us in Twitter, or leave a comment.

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