Stories of Cancer
Giving Voice to Real Experiences

Breaking the News

There seemed to be a huge number of people we needed to communicate with somehow. First I needed to tell the people who knew where I’d been today what the results were. Now I knew I was going to have surgery soon I needed to let my co-workers and clients know I was going to be off work. What was I going to say to my parents? How was I going to tell my sisters? Who would I tell and who would I not tell?

It was relatively easy to tell people who knew I’d been to the clinic. They were all waiting for news and had been worrying with me about what might be going on. I found myself repeating the same phrases on the phone that evening: they said they were seriously concerned; it is cancer; I’m going to have surgery in a fortnight; I’m fine, feel well, I trust the surgeon, trying to sound cheerful and upbeat, trying to be cheerful and upbeat. A few close friends managed to get behind the façade. With them I shed a few tears, but not many, I had a list of calls to make, I needed to get on, I had to cook tea, keep busy. I knew I was in denial and didn’t want to come out of it. I watched myself telling people and wondered how I could tell them I had cancer without breaking down and howling. I seemed to be able to keep a distance from myself, from it, from the possibilities, from what might happen to me. The news was hard for people to hear, and it was hard (but felt therapeutic) for me to speak about something that I was still coming to terms with.

It felt particularly difficult telling my family. None of them lived nearby so I had to tell them on the phone. I wished my mum and dad lived nearby, it must have been so hard for them to hear, and I wanted a hug from them both. I wanted to tell both parents and my four younger sisters directly if I could, rather than ask my mum to do the telling for me, which I thought she might offer to do. I wanted to talk to my mum, my dad, each of my sisters, one by one. I wanted them all to know and I also wanted to protect them. I didn’t want them to be too upset, and I managed to find a way to tell them which let them know I wasn’t falling apart and that I had cause for optimism. I tried to have the calm voice of the surgeon in mind, to stay practical and give them information, to tell them of the steps that would be taken, of the hope I had that all would be well, and that the treatment would deal with the wayward cells that had taken over part of my right breast. At the same time Terry was on the phone to his family and other friends.

Once we’d told the first list of people we began talking about who else to tell. I was worried about work, about the projects I was involved in and the impact my news would have. I was a successful businesswoman, an organisational consultant, self employed, part of a group of consultants, all of us doing well and in a very busy phase. There were three other consultants in the group, all of them close friends as well as colleagues. I’d already told them the news. They were fabulous, so supportive, I knew I could rely on them whatever was to come. Not for the first time I was grateful to be working with such lovely people.

I was worried about work. Although I knew all my clients would be supportive, we’d just started a large project that I was project manager for. I didn’t want to let anyone down, and although I knew somehow it would be fine, I had always hated having to tell people if I had the flu and couldn’t make it. I felt uncertain about how much to tell people: saying I was seriously ill without giving details felt overdramatic, saying I was going to be off for a while could set off curious gossip, but treating them as friends didn’t feel quite right either. In the end though, that was exactly what I did; I gave them the news in the same way as I told friends, but with added apologies. Of course it was all fine in the end though I knew there would be an impact on the work, particularly on my colleagues, who somehow found the energy to pick up my work as well as their own. I felt hugely grateful as I began to sink into rest and preparation for surgery.

As I got used to talking with close friends and family, I realised there was another issue underneath the practicalities of what to say to who. The question of can people’s thoughts affect your health? became an issue.

Terry and I have loads of friends, and it seemed that we were forever extending the list of people to tell. Should we be telling everyone? I knew I wanted to be open with people, to be able to tell people I met if it felt right. However this wasn’t an easy decision. We’d both been involved in a meditation network which advised that you shouldn’t widely broadcast this sort of news, as once people start to think of you with a life threatening illness, their thoughts can negatively affect your health.

Whilst I believe in the power of thoughts, and the power of prayer, to have an impact on people’s well being, I couldn’t cope with the idea of not telling, of banning people from talking about my diagnosis. I couldn’t imagine saying to friends or clients “I’ve got something wrong, I need to have treatment, I don’t know how long I’m going to be off for, I don’t want to tell you what’s wrong with me, and I don’t want you to talk to other people about what’s wrong with me”. It didn’t fit with who I am, and seemed destined to create curiosity and rumour. I wanted to tell people.

I remembered that not long ago I’d heard a statistic of one in ten women getting breast cancer. My reaction was immediately one of fear: I know loads of women, but none of them have it, oh dear, I’m going to be the one in ten that gets it. Then, remembering that, did I create it by having that thought? Then wondering or are there women I know who’ve had this but haven’t told me? How can we support each other if we don’t know who else is in the same situation?

It felt important to me to be ‘out’ about my diagnosis, to challenge the ‘carry on regardless’ approach, and the ‘thoughts affect health’ theory, to let people know that anyone can get cancer. As I went through the process of telling more people about it, I found there were a couple of people I knew who’d had it but hadn’t told me, who’d wanted to keep it private. That was fine for them but I wanted to open up a network of support, so that people could turn to each other when they got a diagnosis like this, not, perhaps, to keep it in the closet and pretend it wasn’t happening.

I desperately wanted to find other women who had been there, to find out about their experiences, to help me cope with the medical protocols I was being swept along by. I hoped that I might find friends; old friends who’d also had a diagnosis, new friends who were friends of friends. I needed a new network and needed it fast.

So the decision was made. Over the coming weeks and months I would tell everyone: family, friends and clients alike. Although the telling was hard, it felt right for me and was what I needed, rather than trying to keep quiet and act normal. The rewards were enormous. I got used to saying the ‘C’ word, and another layer of denial peeled off with each conversation until I came to a place of quiet, of waiting and resting, tidying up work projects, handing over responsibility. On hearing the news, people were loving, kind and supportive. The house was filled with flowers, and each time one bunch died a new bunch arrived. I felt calm and comfortable as I readied myself for surgery. I bought myself a treat: some designer pyjamas, an extravagance but money well spent. I wore those pyjamas for weeks. They gave me and the nurses and doctors easy access to my breast and were loads better than a nightie would have been.

The night before surgery Terry and I cried together for the first time, just letting the tears come. Until now, one of us had tried to stay strong to support the other. That night we let ourselves be scared together, without self-censorship, without blame, without the need to protect.

“I’m so scared, I could be dying and I’m only just learning how to live, it’s far too soon for me to go”
“We’ve only just got back together, its less than a year since I moved back in with you, it’s not fair, too soon”
“I’m still young, I’ve only just turned 51, I don’t want to die yet.”
“Anyway, the plan was that you would die first, you’re much less fit than me!”
“I want to die first, I don’t want to be left alone”
“I don’t want to be left alone either and I don’t want to get ill and die in pain, I don’t want you to have to nurse me”

We talked and talked, each of us letting ourselves feel the anticipated grief until we were all cried out. After we cried we cuddled up in bed and watched back episodes of “Early Doors”, brilliant Mancunian humour, laughing loudly until I fell asleep with a crash.