Four Things No One Tells You About a Cancer Diagnosis

By Lambeth Hochwald
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

When Margaret Kovera was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36, she took refuge in her career, which helped her feel empowered. At the time, her daughter was just 3. “The only thing that mattered to me was that I survived,” she recalls. One day, a colleague made a disturbing comment. “When she heard I had cancer she actually said, Oh, you have that young daughter. What is going to become of her?”

Welcome to the world of the newly diagnosed. To help you cope with hurtful comments and uncomfortable situations, we’ve turned to patients and experts for their perspective.

1. You’ll be bombarded with other people’s cancer stories.
“I just had my hairdresser tell me…about this lady who was feeling good too, and then she died,” says Sandy, a cancer survivor who has posted on the American Cancer Society (ACS) Cancer Survivor Network website. “How outrageous! I was speechless.”

What to do: “Tell friends [and acquaintances] if what they’re saying isn’t helpful,” advises Darren Arthur, an oncology social worker at Beth Israel Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York City. “That will help them know what to do and say in the future.” Take a cue from this post by “Duckyann” on the ACS website: “I had an employee who felt the need to tell me about all the people she knew who had cancer and died. I got so sick of it that I looked at her and said, If you can’t tell me some success stories, keep them to yourself because I’m not interested.”

2. You may be the one comforting friends AND family.
“A lot of the time, I was the one who ended up doing the reassuring,” says Shawna Karrasch, 49, a horse trainer in Encinitas, CA, who was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2011. “I wanted people to see the gravity of the situation, but I also wanted them to look at the bright side of things.”

What to do: “Most people who haven’t been on either side of cancer simply don’t know how to help,” says Amy Menke, a mental health counselor intern at The Life Center of the Suncoast in Tampa, FL. “This calls for a clear communication of needs.” Let loved ones know, for instance, that saying something like “Call me if you need something” doesn’t cut it. “After all, this gesture doesn’t add up to bringing a meal over or running an errand for the household,” Menke says.

3. You’ll envy others.
“I’m jealous of people who don’t have to go to chemo,” says Sheri, a blogger who has rectal cancer. “I’m jealous of people who don’t have to think twice about doing something fun with their kids.”

What to do: Don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, focus on what you can do to meet your emotional needs.

For instance, if you’re a breast cancer patient and you can’t lift your children due to arm swelling, find other ways to feel close to your kids. “We focus on helping people deal with what’s in front of them,” says Arthur. “We remind patients that they may eventually be able to return to the activities they enjoy.”

Counseling can help, as can writing or talking about your feelings. Sheri works through her difficult emotions in her blog. She recently wrote: I’m fighting to stay positive. Tomorrow will be a better day.

4. Your relationships may be strained.
“I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia a few months ago, and my husband seems unconcerned,” says Gemma in a post on the ACS website. “I feel alone and afraid. I want him to take care of me…but it looks as if that isn’t going to be the case.”

Gemma is hardly alone. “Cancer almost always challenges your relationships,” says Arthur. One reason is that the healthy partner may not know how to meet the needs of the ill person. “He may feel guilty and inadequate, so he pulls away,” Arthur explains. Another common scenario: The healthy person can’t face the possibility of losing his partner, so he subconsciously tries to upset her. “It’s easier for the caregiver to say goodbye if he’s angry with her,” says Arthur.

What to do: Find a support group or counselor. Contact the ACS (cancer.org) or Cancer Care (cancercare.org). Also, ask your healthcare provider for a referral. 

Published March 2014

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