You’re sitting in the waiting room before your chemotherapy infusion, one more washed-out, tired cancer patient ready to face those deadly drugs again. The room is crowded, and a woman sits down next to you. You make eye contact, and start to talk. She’s got all her hair; you assume she’s a chemo newbie, and she confirms it by offering that this is her first time, she’s about to start a six-course treatment of FEC. You tell her that coincidentally, you’re on those same drugs, about to have your fifth treatment. “Oh, really?” she asks eagerly. “What’s it been like?”
You’ve been nauseous, had diarrhea, and feel like you’ve had the flu for two months. Your mouth is full of sores, your feet hurt, and the crook of your arm, where they deliver the drugs, burns like a bee sting. Do you list your entire litany of side effects? Do you lie, and tell her it’s been fine? What do you say?
A friend in her young 40s has been having mammograms for several years, and gets a callback each time. She’s small-breasted, and she says the radiologists keep thinking they see something, but then they don’t. Plus, she says her breasts are naturally lumpy anyway.
From what you’ve heard and read, you suspect she may have dense breasts, one of the prime risk factors in breast cancer, particularly in pre-menopausal women. Or she may have any number of pre-pre-cancer conditions. Up to 30 percent of ALL women have hyperplasia, an abnormal growth of cells in the breast; for the vast majority, it’s a non-issue, never morphing into cancer. But for some… they get the kick-in-the-gut diagnosis.
Your friend blows the whole thing off. “I have no history of breast cancer. I eat right, don’t smoke, exercise. I’m not worried.” Do you congratulate her on her positive attitude? Or do you caution her to pay attention, to do those monthly exams, not put off that mammogram, because something may be brewing? Do you throw the wet blanket of reality on her sunny outlook?
As breast cancer patients and survivors, we feel we have a wealth of information to share, the result of hard-won experience. And breast cancer is such a powerful journey, we seem to have an endless desire to talk about it: to tell others what it’s been like for us. And, to give advice. We want to help. And by sharing our experiences, that’s what we feel we’re doing. But are we helping other women? Or are we simply venting, and really just helping ourselves?
My advice? Be careful what you say, and whom you say it to. Those of us who’ve been through breast cancer stand on one side of the abyss; those who haven’t, on the other. Speak freely to the women on your side; think hard before you unburden yourself to women who haven’t, and probably never will have cancer. Let them hang onto their belief that cancer will never touch them. Allow them their innocence. If someday they DO go through breast cancer, you can answer their questions honestly. But till then–discretion might be your best course.