It’s often said that “Opposites Attract” but what about people with illnesses or those who know someone with serious heath conditions? Do they attract?
When I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, I unintentionally became the hub of all things health and cancer related. At work, people told me stories of Aunt Matilda who died a horrible death from colon cancer that eventually invaded her brain. Or a best friend who, after battling breast cancer for four years, died leaving behind her five year old triplets to be raised by their unemployed alcoholic father.
Why did I have to know about these people? What was I to do with such information? It seems when some people hear the word “cancer,” they do a brain search for that word and blurt out whatever story is in their head about the subject, no matter how horrifying. And the person who patiently listens to the story (me) tries to figure out if she’s meant to comfort the story teller, ask more questions about the situation, or detail how my situation might be different than the tale’s protagonist.
Is it not enough to have to face the burden of one’s own illness, but also have to shoulder the burden of emotionally supporting another person’s loss or health scare? Or to provide specifics about my own health issues to someone who has thus far ranked as a “say Hi in the hallways” friend up to this point?
What I’ve surmised is that some people just don’t think. They don’t know what to say when they learn of a serious health condition of one of their friends, co-workers or family members. So they think about themselves and their experiences with the disease or related disease. They share War Stories. This is similar to situations pregnant women who have to listen to jaw-dropping stories of 48 hour labors or babies born with severe challenges.
When I discovered I that my cancer had spread to my bones, one woman at work checked in on me daily, letting me know how her sore back was coming along. She had the condition for months and kept the pain under control with yoga and Tylenol. As she spoke, my internal dialog was active “I realize she’s hurting, but how does telling me about it do anything for her or for me? Yes, she is having a hard time standing up straight, but the pain in my hip makes it nearly impossible for me to walk at all. And this wig is really itchy. I need some alone time.” I had to look around my office to see if there was a hidden camera recording each encounter, which would be played on some future reality TV program. Was she going to burst out laughing, pointing to the camera and say “Gotcha”?
There came a time when cancer treatment caused my immune system to crash and I needed to stay away from people. So, during weekdays, I my office as a bunker, equipped with jumbo bottles of hand sanitizer. I was lucky to have a job where I could use the phone and email to accomplish most of my objectives. By this time, many more co-workers knew of my condition. The in-person visits became phone calls and emails. People asked what I needed. I had to figure out what I needed. Maybe I just needed to be alone?
I found this great article on the American Cancer Society’s website: “When Someone You Know Has Cancer”
Another article “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer”
Both have outstanding tips, thoughtfully put together from those who have been through treatment for cancer and those who have supported them.
As I was working through my emotions on the subject of feeling like a health junkie dumping ground, I decided to take the high road. The stories had to be told by the teller. I could choose listen to them as a way to both help the other person and a way to understand that the other person was coping in the best way they could at the time. I learned how to tactfully cut conversations short. I learned that people wanted to help but didn’t know how. So I developed ideas on how they could help: send me funny cards in the mail; shoot me an email every once in awhile to tell me how they’re doing;, text me a humorous photo of something happening in their lives.
After all of this, I trained to become a breast cancer helpline volunteer and speak with those facing stage IV disease. I’ve been able to share in the frustrations of other women feeling like they have become Illness Magnets in their workplaces or families. And most importantly, I’ve given them some perspective on how they can broaden the conversation away from disaster stories to things that can actually help them get through the workday.
Yes, I’m still an Illness Magnet. But, no, I don’t let every scrap of disease-related situations stick.