With a new diagnosis comes fear and uncertainty and a temptation toward denial. The last thing anyone wants to do when they are diagnosed is tell your story over and over to people but it has to be done. I remember waking up from my biopsy with tears, a painful incision and new hurdles I had to face. I gripped my parent’s hands and listened to the doctor talk. We had many questions about treatment and what like would be like for the next several months. Later that day, my younger brother and sister called me and asked how things were going. I had to go slowly with them because I felt I couldn’t just tell them over the phone how my life had changed. Instead, my family talked it through together in my hospital room when they came to visit. Together, we shared hugs and tears, but also hope. It was difficult to wait to discuss my illness with my siblings. On one hand, it lengthens the period of fear and dread. However, on the other hand, everyone can benefit from the comfort that closeness provides.
Telling friends and relatives inevitably involves phone calls. Based on your strength and stamina, you may want to decide to do it all at once, as the words seem to flow more freely after the first call. With family, one of my parents would casually ask them how they were doing. Then they would tell them that we had some news, that wasn’t going to be easy to understand. They would always sound optimistic by first telling them that things were going to be all right and that I was doing well. Then they would put the phone on speakerphone so we both could talk. This way if one of us stumbled or got emotional, the other could take over. We would usually tell them that I would be fine and would hate losing my hair but looked forward to getting a sexy blonde wig. Then my mom would talk and try to arrange a time to see me. Next, we would tell them to make calls to family friends and people that we see less frequently. Everyone wants to hear from the patient directly and really appreciates even a short call. After the first few calls you fall into a pattern down and it isn’t wasn’t so draining. Friends are easier to communicate with given all of today’s social media connections. However, like family, some people you need to talk to on the phone. I knew I would need to tell my boyfriend who I had only started to date 2 weeks ago this way. I called him and told him that I was not doing well but my prognosis was good and to come visit me to talk more. I did the same for a few of my best friends. I told them to come in a group so I could explain my situation fewer times and answer questions so the story was less likely to change by word of mouth. Finally, I got messages and wall posts on Facebook from people reaching out and offering support. One of the great things about social media is that you can give lots of people updates even when you don’t feel like talking. When you do feel like you want to really connect with someone who is not close, try Skype video chatting. It’s the next best thing to being there.
Heather Buchan is a two-time Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor from New Jersey. Her first diagnosis was at age 16 in 2008. After high school and first semester in college she relapsed in 2010, requiring more treatment and ultimately a bone marrow transplant. After a perfect match transplant from her older sister, her cancer is cured and currently attends Syracuse University in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.