Avoiding the Cancer Conversation with Friends
This past week end, I went to a beautiful wedding with my family. In attendance were relatives I hadn’t seen in many years, lots of people I had never met and one of my favourite teachers from grade school.
I always feel a bit of awkwardness at these kinds of events, as I brace myself for the inevitable questions, “What are you up to these days?” or “What do you do?”
No one wants to drop the c-word at a wedding, least of all me.
I have become very adept at deflecting these kinds of questions, a skill I actually acquired when I was suffering from a serious depression more than a decade ago and really did not want to talk about myself. I am also genuinely interested in other people, so it’s not hard to ask questions and keep them talking about themselves. And, my kids, who were having a great time in their own different ways, are always a great topic of conversation (I need to stop and brag here for a second. My kids were a big hit at this wedding. The best compliment of the night came from a young guy who told my spouse and me that we had two great kids. “They are like night and day but they are both really cool. You must be doing a great job with them because they are both great people.” I already knew that but it was so great to hear). But my life as a mom-writer-cancer patient does not provide me with the twenty second synopsis that I could easily provide pre-diagnosis.
I like my life now and most of the time I am really happy. But I also miss my job, and perhaps even more, I miss my former identity. I liked being able to say, “I do research and communications for a large public sector union.” I am working on being able to proudly say that I am a writer but I can’t quite do that yet (especially since talk of my writing inevitably leads back to the c-word). And, so when I introduced myself to my former teacher, I simply told her that I was on leave from my job with a union.
As I write this, I am wondering if I have internalized the shame experienced by some cancer patients. Ever since I was a little girl, I have been very ambitious. There were goals I had set for myself that I was very close to achieving when I was diagnosed. I have long known that I am disappointed that these goals are now out of my reach. It never occurred to me that perhaps I am embarrassed as well.
I need to keep working at getting past this feeling. I don’t need to talk about cancer at a wedding but I don’t need to feel that it’s something I need to hide.
I realize too that I’m still pretty ambitious. The nature of these ambitions has changed but there are still many things I want to do with my life. And I still want to keep living for a long, long time.
One of the first people I met when we arrived at the wedding was a family member who completed cancer treatment not long ago (she is a also a really cool woman, a natural organizer, an artist and a mom to two teenage boys). We hadn’t seen each other in more than two years. There was a moment’s silence while we stopped to look into each other’s eyes. Then I said, “We’re here.” And we hugged.
As we walked across the lawn towards the area where the ceremony took place, we exchanged quick “How are you’s”, aware that we could not begin to answer that question in that time and place.
“I’m very well,” I said. “Especially when you consider the alternative.”
You can read more of my writing at Not Just About Cancer.