Monday, May 28, 2007

Share and share alike

It's questionable, this business of being a 'cancer victim'. Most of the time, you just muddle along reacting to things in real time and coping because it's just the new normality.

I have hundreds of people tell me how brave I'm being, how they can't imagine what state they'd be in. This doesn't mean I don't appreciate the sentiment, but it makes me feel awkward and embarrassed when they heap this sort of praise on you. Part of me is cynical enough to suspect it may just be one of those phrases that we all fall back on in times of crisis. The other part of me squirms because I know I'm not remotely brave. To turn another tired old phrase, I'm just dealing with the cards life dealt me and anybody else would be doing just the same.

I also have lots of people, some professional colleagues or business acquaintances, who are embarrassed, uncomfortable or squeamish about the whole cancer thing. It might be because they hate talking about emotional things. It might be because they don't know me well enough and this disease manifests a new level of intimacy that feels inapproproate. Or it might be because they have some personal experience of cancer which prohibits them from being involved in mine.

But some, whilst only being passing professional acquaintances, have surprised me by being really curious about every aspect of this. Often I find out that someone they knew went through something similar recently so they know all about it and quiz me on how I'm feeling, how many chemos I've had, what my side-effects are etc.

Either way, I think I can tell pretty quickly which people want to find out more and which want to quickly and courteously check I'm okay and then move on to fresh topics of conversation. If people want to ask me, I am, it has to be said, not one to hold back. If people want to avoid the topic, then I shall steer us on swiftly to neutral waters. It makes no odds to me.

Which is why I was surprised, upset and concerned when someone I know very well professionally advised me that I might be 'sharing too much'. It was meant well, and tenderly delivered, but I was astonished and dismayed. It was suggested that there are some people who are afraid of asking how I am, because I might decide to 'share' the whole cancer thing in all its detail.

What stung about this was threefold.

Firstly, the humiliation that I may have actually lost my sense for knowing what people want to hear. I pride myself on being able to feel my way through a conversation and navigate a conversation with a relative stranger with success. It's sort of the essence of what I do for a living. Maybe the whole cancer thing had detuned my senses.

Secondly, the indignation of being accused of being too fast and loose with my cancer experience. If this hadn't been in a professional environment I may well have risen up, insulted, and defended my right to 'share'. Part of me wanted to scream 'How dare you presume how I should or should not 'share' the fact I have cancer?'.

(Incidentally, I hate the word 'share' - it's far too Oprah... but it's one of those words that has usurped all others and nothing better expresses what it actually means.)

My diagnosis, the operation and the current treatment, and the impact it had on our lives, is all still very recent. How AM I meant to deal with it all? Pretend the fact that I look increasingly like an old, balding Catherine Tate character, have three raw scars on my boobs, am still living in London and not Uganda, and am pumped full of poison every three weeks doesn't ever cross my mind while I'm at work? Should I stick it in a box for hometime and talk about it only to R? It's hardly realistic, and quite ironic given I work in one of the most 'people' oriented industries out there. I mean, it's not as if I work in a city bank. And what's more, I've worked there for nearly eight years so friendships have inevitably sprung up. And these friends are asking after me in a genuine way, sending me cards, checking if there is anything they can do, taking me out to distract me when I'm down, giving me generous and totally unnecessary presents. They don't SEEM to be tiptoeing around me, worried about asking 'How are you?'.

Ooh, you can almost smell the self-righteousness. But I was angry.

But thirdly, and this is what really concerns me, I was struck with the possibility that he might be right.

I might have inadvertently become a cancer bore.

Maybe having this bloody thing, and going through the rigmarole of chemo every three weeks, has given me some sort of cancer blinkers. I know I certainly hit a point just before Chemo One where I had cried too much, read too much, googled too much and talked too much about cancer.

I had got to the point where I bored myself with the disease.

It made me feel refreshingly normal when conversations with friends moved off 'How I Was?' and onto the beautiful mundaneities of everyday life, from spending far too much money on a new tent to house prices outside the M25. Normality was glorious and made me feel great.

But with creeping shame, I also remember that after a few minutes, I'd sometimes find myself with nothing to talk about and listen with horror as I heard myelf pull the conversation back to me and my litany of side-effects. The trouble with cancer is that it does rather take over your life for a while. Hijacks your normal routine and switches your focus, re-orders your universe.

Obviously I talk about cancer on this blog. That's the point. Well, the point was originally about emigrating to Uganda, but cancer has become the point of the blog. For now.

But do I talk about it too much in everyday life? Am I the brave but boring cancer battler that has nothing else to say?


Which is a horrifying thought and one I will be closely monitoring over the coming weeks.

Then again, if I am, does it actually matter? Maybe the problem lies with those who have a problem with it. They may be projecting their squeamishness onto others. If they don't want to hear about what's new in my cancer world, that's fine. But it won't stop me answering the question of those who are genuinely interested and concerned.

In the meantime, I HAD got to the point where I was boring myself. That was a few weeks ago. Since then, I may be dancing the merry Chemo two-step for the next few months but at least now I know that there is room to do things and live reasonably normally in weeks two and three of each cycle. Which in turn, will hopefully expand my conversational repertoire.

Because the thought that I may have nothing else to say terrifies the living daylights out of me.


Steve said...

You're a third of the way through something that's weird, time consuming, life altering and bloody inconvenient. Of course you're going to talk about it - you'd talk about anything that disrupted normality by as much (look at people who come back to work post baby with tales of exploding diapers, all night crying jags and leaky boobs)

The thing is that your cancer treatment (not your cancer - you don't have cancer remember) becomes less of a novelty for others before it does for you.

It's a terrible narrative arc - cancer 'arrrgggghhh', threat of death 'arrrrrgghhhhh', treatment 'scary', side effects - 'weird', more treatment - 'oh okay then', more treatment 'is she still doing that?'

Diminishing returns right through to the anti-climax of being all clear and slipping back into normality.

Thing is that you'll go through the same arc - as you said even you get bored with your treatment. Especially radiation (long trips, long waits, short treatments)

I think you got a very British reaction to 'sharing'. There are people who want to know exactly how you're feeling and people who feel as though they ought to want to know but live in fear of an emotionally raw encounter.

My solution - suggest lunch with the people that really want to know, have 'safe sharing zones' - and be brief and entirely functional with the others "How am I? I'm a third of the way through, some weird stuff happening but getting through it"

Or you could pull 'steroid fury' and tell close professional contact to go fuck himself...

Marie said...

Well, I appreciate your frankness. There's an elephant in the room. No point glossing over it.

Sara Kocher said...

I wrote this comment on Monday, but then got sidetracked by the kid before I clicked to post it. What I said has now already been said better, but since this was all written and ready to post, I figured I'd send it along anyway:

I don't know you in real life. But on your blog you talk about cancer in a completely straightforward way, with quite a bit of humor. Assuming you're about the same in conversation, I'm at a loss to see what might cause someone to be afraid to toss a casual "how are you doing?" your way.

I could see someone warning you that talking too much about it in a professional context might harm your career (in an "oh, she's got cancer so give that assignment to someone else" way). But it doesn't sound like that was the concern. So I don't get it.

But that last thing, the "cancer bore" part: I acted the same way with parenthood. Just replace the word "cancer" with "kid." And my friend R did it over her new dog (don't ask). Anything that takes over your life and radically changes it, whether it's something you wanted or had foisted on you, is going to take over a lot of your thought and conversation for a while. After a while, I found it best to fight that conversational tendency at least a bit, so I didn't lose myself in it. But don't beat yourself up for it.