At about 15 years as a survivor there were a few truths I had finally learned.
About six or seven years out I felt I had my head on straight enough that I began calling newly diagnosed women when someone asked me to help. I was full of advice and usually put my foot in my mouth until I learned to listen. As a result, I made a lot of women cry when I gave them information they weren’t ready for.
I did talk to women my surgeon asked me to talk to, mostly young women with children since the Reach to Recovery group was filled with older women. But after dealing with lots of angry women, I began to understand that they needed to call me when they were ready.
When someone called me and asked me to call a friend, family member or someone they knew who had just been diagnosed, I said I was happy to talk to them when they wanted to call me with questions or for advice. I also learned that when they did call to begin by asking them what they knew and letting them talk and then when they were finished, asking how I could help. I developed coaching skills that allowed them to get to a place where they made a decision without my advice – only guidance and reflective listening.
Usually it’s a common friend who calls and tells me about a friend. I always offer my number and tell the friend to urge her friend to call. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. It’s like not accepting the diagnosis if they don’t have to talk to someone who’s been there.
Sometimes, when they call, they don’t know what they want to know yet, and they really hate cancer, and, by being someone with cancer, that’s you.
This is why when I learned another soccer mom (who I will call Amy) had been recently diagnosed, I didn’t rush up to her at practice to offer any wisdom or advice. I knew through another soccer mom and close friend of Amy’s that she had a very early diagnosis and was resisting surgery. She was a New Ager and wanted to do it without Western medicine. OK.
She was sure that the area of the diagnosed cancer had gotten smaller when she stopped drinking coffee. (She determined this with self exam.) I knew that she had been to see my surgeon and been very difficult and hostile at the prospect of “mutilation.” Amy’s friend had urged me to call her to talk some sense into her.
I told her that wasn’t a good idea. She had to want the surgery or it was wrong. But if Amy wanted to talk to me, I would be glad to talk to her.
A month later Amy called. “So,” she said. “I guess you know that I don’t want surgery. I just think that there are other ways to handle it.”
OK, I told her that she had to want the surgery or she shouldn’t have it. It was clear she was shocked that I didn’t jump on her. Then she asked the magic question:
“What do you think?”
“I think you’re crazy,” I told her. “I have been to nine funerals in 18 months and any one of them would have given her right arm to have had your diagnosis.
Then I added: “I think it’s between you and your husband.”
“Why,” she shot back. “It’s my body.”
Sure, I said, but he’s going to have to raise the kids after you die.