Cancer's Unspoken Rule: Don't Tell Me Your Horror Stories

Patient Expert

You have all kinds of issues to deal with when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and one of them is people who want to tell you their own cancer story — personal, or that of a relative or friend. But the last thing you want to hear right now is the details of someone else’s miserable experience. Here’s how to (politely) shut down over-eager sharers.

Your friends aren’t trying to make you feel bad — really

First, understand where this desire to share horror stories comes from. When confronted with any piece of information, it’s human nature to quickly process, then personalize it. Most people’s only cancer experience is second-hand: they’ve heard about someone else’s illness. And since the most memorable story is one with a series of twists and turns, like a good book you can’t put down, that’s the one they remember: which in the case of cancer means trouble.

Think about it. “My Aunt Mary had breast cancer. She had an operation and some radiation, and now she’s fine.” Ho-hum. Versus “My cousin John had bone cancer, and his treatment was an absolute horror show; he nearly died from the chemo alone.” Which story is more likely to rise to the top of your brain — and come tumbling out of your mouth?

Right — cousin John’s near-death experience. So it’s not that your friends and neighbors want to be hurtful; they simply don’t think things through before responding to your news. Given that, here are some ways to head off TMI (too much information).

Pick and choose with whom to share

Don’t share your cancer news with people you know to be insensitive or impetuous. A friend like this is likely to speak before thinking — driving you to the hands-over-ears, “la-la-la-la-la” response.

Take the initiative in the conversation

If the person you’re connecting with already knows you have cancer, and you’re seeing one another in person for the first time since your diagnosis, take the lead right away; don’t let them jump right in with their story. “Yeah, I’m starting treatment in two weeks. In the meantime, I’ve got a ton of stuff to get finished at work, and I’m trying to work my way through all the insurance mess.” Lead the conversation away from the cancer itself to more mundane topics.

When you hear a story coming, interrupt

Yes, interrupting while someone is speaking is impolite — in the usual circumstances. But cancer qualifies as a special circumstance. As soon as you hear, “Oh, my cousin had cervical cancer, and she…” — jump right in. “Is this a good story, or a horror story? Because honestly, all I can handle right now are happy endings.”

Let the other person know how you feel right up front

Tell your high school classmate on Facebook that you’re upset by your diagnosis, and you’re feeling pretty sensitive at the moment: health-scare stories that might not stress you out at other times are hitting too close to home right now. Hopefully s/he’ll take the hint and keep the news of her girlfriend’s botched mastectomy to herself.

That said, try not to over-react

Your cancer journey is going to involve some tough patches for sure. So practice being strong by training yourself to control your reactions to whatever comes your way — and that includes an over-enthusiastic “sharer.”

No, you don’t have to listen to all the wretched details of Jake’s dad’s lung cancer; but if he says, “He had a hard time with the chemo, he was really exhausted and couldn’t keep food down,” tough it out without protest. Make an appropriate response (“Wow, I hope he’s over all of that now”), and push the conversation forward.

Scan before you read

Some people will want to connect with you via email, a text, Facebook, or even a handwritten note — which means you don’t need to respond immediately. Wait until you’re in a good place emotionally before opening the message. Then do a quick scan: you’ll be able to tell, usually by its length, if there’s a story involved. If you see any negative words (“awful,” “devastating,” “vomit”), simply stop reading; it’ll keep for another day.

Peace trumps politeness

One final tip: If ever there’s a time it’s OK to set aside “polite behavior” in favor of inner peace, it’s during cancer treatment. If, despite your best efforts, you find yourself listening to a cancer story you just don’t want to hear — say “excuse me,” turn around, and walk away. Simple as that.

See more helpful articles:

The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety

Resolved: An End to Panic, Stress, and Fear

Breast Cancer Treatment Tips