Friday, December 7, 2012

How Do I Tell Them?

After I found out I had cancer I had the strangest feeling. I liken it to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Conversations with acquaintances became stilted and distant. The simple question we ask strangers - How are you today? - turned into a stabbing reminder that I'd be lying if I answered with the expected "Fine. How are you?"

So I would say nothing and smile warily before looking away or babble on about the price of blackberries to the well-meaning cashier at my local grocery store.

Talking to family and close friends plunged me further. Who do I tell and when? In what order? Is this the conversation where I dissolve into tears and tell my mother, who lives across the country from me, that I have breast cancer? How can I tell her when she is only a week away from a hospital stay to replace her pacemaker?

Who I told first and the details of the telling are lost in a fog of smiles, hugs, tears, and dread. I did what I had to do and quickly wadded up the moments and threw them away like letters I never wanted to read again. But there are a few memories that will stay with me forever.

I took a good friend of six years aside after a meeting and told her my news. As her eyes welled with tears, I smiled and reassured her that I would be alright. After a few minutes where she stared at me, a little dazed, and I told her the details of my illness, she said, "If you need help drawing your eyebrows on please come to me. I'll make them look very natural."  I was overwhelmed with love for her.

Soon after, my husband and I flew home to Georgia for his high school reunion. We'd attended the same school, so I knew most, if not all, of the people at the dinner. Reunions are festive occasions where we dress to impress, condense the last twenty years of news into a two minute recitation, and pray that we can match the names from the past with aging faces and bodies. I couldn't figure out how to work in the news that the following month I'd start Chemotherapy. I wanted to have fun and laugh for real, not whip out my practiced smile say, "It's okay really. I'm going to be fine."

It helped to reconnect with old friends
 Most casual conversations don't recover from the "I have cancer" bombshell. Todd and I ended up sitting at a table with a classmate who is also a breast cancer survivor. She talked about her experience in casual terms that I just could not process. To be fair, she'd been well for many years and didn't know about my problem. As she talked I listened intently, hoping to glean some wisdom without breaking down and crying into my plate of  finger food. Before the night was over, I went to the bathroom seven times. I counted.

To my right is a sweet lady (one of Todd's classmates) who passed away from breast cancer this month.
In the bathroom, I cried a little, splashed water on my face, shook out my hands to release the frustration, and gave myself little pep talks. "You can do this. Go have fun." Still, an insidious voice rose from behind me to say, "What if this is the last time you see this group of friends? It could be, you know. You could die before the next reunion. It could happen."

Then I'd start the process (1 through 7) of crying, washing, shaking, and reassuring all over again.

I waited to tell my parents in person. It was on this same trip to Georgia. We sat in lawn chairs under the big oak tree, as we often do in the summer. I don't remember what I said. I just remember the look of devastation on their faces, my stiff smile, and my repeated reassurances that I'd be fine. I had to be strong for them. Their only child was seriously ill. They needed to lean on me.

Gold panning in Dahlonega served as distraction after telling my parents the news.

That's what I mean about the rabbit hole. All of my emotions, all of my responses, all of my reactions were twisted, upside down, big then suddenly small, absurd then miraculously sublime.

I wish I'd just said to everyone I met along the way, "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." Then zipped my lip and let the world take care of itself.

I could have been Tig Notaro. "Hello. Good evening. I have cancer," is exactly what she said when she walked on stage to perform her comedy at Largo in Los Angeles back in August of this year. She'd recently found out that she had breast cancer. It seemed insincere to do her typical routine. Her jokes seemed trivial compared to the earthquakes going on in her personal life. So she let the audience in, let them feel her confusion as she worked through the problem on stage giving an impromptu performance. I think it's the most touching dialogue I've ever heard. It's well worth a listen. This American Life did a segment called What Doesn't Kill You that featured a portion of the live half-hour show.

Tig Notaro on stage.
I never want a do over on the cancer bombshell, but if it happens I want to be as brave and forthright as Tig. God bless her. She's told the press that her treatments are going well. Here's to long and happy lives for both of us, Ms. Notaro!


  1. Beautiful piece, as always. I remember back in 1993 when I told my mother that my husband and I were splitting up after 18 years. When you have to deliver bad news about yourself--especially to your parents--the pain you see in their eyes makes you feel worse than you already do. i can't imagine delivering the cancer news. That must have been a heartbreaking moment.

  2. It was a heartbreaking moment. I remember wanting to collapse into my mother's arms and stay there until I felt better but she looked so sad. I wanted to hold her instead. Sharing bad news is never easy. Having been there with the divorce news too, I know that you understand exactly what I am talking about.

    Love you,

  3. Mike's mom has a problem with her short term memory due to a bout of encephalitis she suffered about 7 years ago. If she doesn't write stuff down in her journal, there's a chance she won't recall it. This complicated our telling her about his cancer. Actually, it was his crash in November that solved this problem. Some of his complications aren't reversible, so he needs to apply for social security disability. Well, his mother worked for social security for several years, a lot of the procedures are hardwired into her long term memory, so she's turned out to be an amazing coach through the maze of paper work and red tape. Her siblings think it's funny that this tragedy has somehow brought back something of the woman they used to know. Also, Mike's uncle is also suffering from colo-rectal cancer, so there's this sense that the family is under some kids of dark cloud. His uncle's wife reached out to me, offering mutual support. I was really touched--I didn't make that effort because I didn't want to intrude on her privacy. But she really wants me to call and talk to about the nitty gritty of managing our husbands' cancer care. My own family, having known Mike since he was 17, is devastated. They need as much comforting from me as I need from them. Great post, Lisa!

  4. Lisa, this blog is so helpful to women in our position. I've always approached every crisis with a very calm demeanor. I was determined to do the same when I got the news. But somehow I couldn't tell people. Maybe it was because uttering the words made it real, but finally I was able to tell select people. I didn't want to shout it from the rooftops with posts on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, so I picked and chose those I let in on my condition. The first person I told outside of family was a woman I met at a writer's conference.

    She talked about having invasive breast cancer and that she was celebrating her five year milestone. Before I knew what I was saying, I blurted out, "I'm having surgery as soon as I get back to L.A." Talking to her really helped. It broke the ice and it was easier with the next person.

    The outflowing of love and cards from people I told absolutely floored me. And you, Lisa...I cherish the beautiful shawl you sent me. What a wonderful thing.

    Keep writing this blog and all of us should keep sharing it. You really tell it like it is and that is anything but easy.

    My treatments are finished now and the prognosis is good but the way you have shared your experience really helped.


Talk to me. I want to listen.