When bad things happen most folks either retreat or share. I am of the latter. I tend to share.
When life throws its lemons I pick up the phone and call my constellation of close friends and family. Bad hair day. Stressful work day. Bad commute. I will share on the phone, by text, or on Facebook.
And then something interesting happened. In the wake of being diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2013, I clammed up. I shared just enough of the bad news with immediate family out of necessity and then retreated. I just wanted to be left alone and even deactivated my Facebook account.
Beyond the initial shock I swiftly started to share again. I shared my story with the local newspaper. I shared with my friends. I shared my story on social media. I shared with colleagues. I shared with my 93-year-old grandmother who insisted on knowing what was going on. And I shared with my then fiancée. I didn’t just text or email. I picked up the phone and shared. I shared in person sometimes over coffee or an adult beverage. In retrospect I’m not certain as to why I shared so swiftly and vastly. I just know that I shared my story with almost everyone I encountered.
What I was not prepared for the reactions I received or didn’t receive. This is one of the unspoken challenges of being a young woman diagnosed with cancer. No one expects that the news would come from someone so well, young.
“No way, you’re so young, it doesn’t make sense,” a lot of friends would say. I’d shrug. Yeah, well. Oh well.
There were the family members who pretended it simply didn’t happen. There was a surreal moment when my aunt discussed booking my radiation treatments over the dinner table, which ran parallel to conversations about how fresh the fish was.
There were my colleagues, one who looked like she was the one who received the bad news. “Oh my, I’m soooo sorry,” she said fighting back tears. I ended up cheering her up by sharing a laundry list of why my predicament wasn’t so bad – caught early, it could have been worse, hey what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger right?
I found managing the reactions from loved ones or friends the most difficult. Some of them looked like they’d been hit by a Mack truck or had a deer caught in the headlights look. I was reminded by how serious the disease was by their reactions.
I had to laugh after colleagues showed me with smiles and a swift series of “you look great” post-surgery. Actually I didn’t really look great.
There was the fiancée who was stoic and sphinx like and would simply say “oh” when I shared the news, and told me that he would Google more to get more information. “Some people just don’t know what to say,” my sister reminded me.
Slowly I learned to be selective when I shared and to not have any expectations. There were certain friends who could not handle such horrible news. Others who tried to comfort me by handing me magic mushrooms, prayer beads, or sharing their own stories of misfortunes (everyone knew of someone who had been affected by cancer). In time I learned who to share with, how much to share with, what to share and what not to. I learned that sometimes it was best to share with other young women who had been through a similar journey, and that it was okay not to share with loved ones for the sake of preserving my own happiness and sanity.
A cancer diagnosis, especially at a young age, is enough to juggle. It takes time to mourn and to process.
This past May I went for my annual mammogram (which, exhale, came out clean), and shared the news with a very small and select group of friends and family. In the past I might have celebrated with cake and champagne, maybe posted it on Facebook or tweeted it out, but this year I decided to choose who to share with. It felt liberating knowing that I was the one in the driver’s seat.
Amy Wu, 38, is a native New Yorker, a PhD student at University of Maryland and a writer/blogger. She was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer at 37. Her favorite foods are chocolate and sushi and she love swimming (she swam a 4-person relay around Manhattan in 2010).