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  • Writer's pictureLisa McIntire

Telling My Peeps

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

It occurs to me that now that I know I have cancer, other people will need to know too.

My husband and mom were with me when I got the call. But I still needed to tell my kids and their spouses, my grandkids, my sisters, in-laws, girlfriends, colleagues...? The list expands in my mind until overwhelmed wins again and my brain shuts down.

How do you tell your loved ones you have cancer? There’s no Cancer for Dummies book, no manual with seven easy steps for this stuff.

I don’t know how to answer the questions in my children’s searching eyes. I don’t know how to dry the tears that cascade down their cheeks and rack their bodies like a dam that broke loose.

I don’t know how to tell my faithful friends that God didn’t answer their prayers for a benign tumor, that He has chosen a different—more rugged—path for me.

I don’t know how to explain to my colleagues and nonprofit partners how our collective world will look now. Remote work is one thing, but how do we schedule around the myriad medical appointments and grueling physical side effects inherent in cancer treatment?

Why does it feel like I’m letting them down with this disclosure? Why does cancer feel like something I have to confess, like a hidden secret, rather than a disease I can’t control?

There’s the shame again – hot and sharp. I hate the shame the most, the way it sneaks up on me when my mind is busily trying to arrange and analyze all the strange new cancer thoughts.

I decide I have two options: There’s the direct method. I pick up the phone and spit it out as calmly as I can. No fluff, just the facts. “The doctor called. I have breast cancer…”, followed by the obligatory “It’s all gonna be ok.” But somehow, this feels like cheating them.

Don’t they deserve more than the facts? But what else can I offer them? I can’t speculate with such limited information and, even if I could, would that be wise? I’m acutely, painfully aware that God is in charge of cancer– not me and not even the very best doctors.

Suddenly, I feel small and still, like my life is a movie that has slowed way down. I don’t know the next plot twist. I don’t know how this all will end. I can only watch the movie – live the movie—until the end, with all the emotional ups and downs, the predictable scenes and the gut-wrenching ones.

The other option is to sugar coat it. Tell them it’s all going to be fine, that I’ll kick cancer’s butt, that this will all be in the rearview mirror in so many months. That’s what some people will need. I get that. It’s too much to take in, too real and raw for some psyches.

I choose the direct method. With my husband by my side, I call each of my children separately and break the news, trying to muster a sense of calm and confidence that I do not feel. Each one reacts in his or her own way. There are tears and questions and long pauses. But sadly, there isn’t much to say because there is so much we don’t know.

So, we simply affirm our love for each other and hang up the phone – the moment as tight as our throats and as heavy as our hearts.

I have friends who hardly told a soul they had breast cancer, and I have friends who shared the most intimate details of their cancer journey with their corner of the world. Neither is wrong.

Cancer – like all the other hard stuff in life – is personal. It’s a chapter in our story, and we get to choose how to write it – and how and with whom to share it.

By nature, I am an introverted, private person. But having lived through a similar dynamic when I was diagnosed with a rare liver disease at age 31, I learned a lesson that I’ve carried with me ever since: Our willingness to be authentic and vulnerable, however that looks for each one of us, is the pathway to purposeful suffering.

Suffering sucks. It’s also a reality of every human life. We all suffer differently and to varying degrees, but we suffer nonetheless. During those times of anguish and intense sorrow, very few things bring comfort. God seems distant and, despite others’ best intentions, attempts at encouragement can fall flat, feeling more like platitudes than profundity.

But one thing that does seem to pierce through the black fog is an honest, compassionate connection with someone who has lived through a similar situation.

The Bible says it like this, “God comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, He brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”

Whether it’s cancer or addiction or divorce or miscarriage, we know intuitively that only someone who has walked a similar road gets our attention. Already, my breast cancer survivor friends have been pillars of strength and support for me, precisely because they know the realities of this world – the fear, the financial strain, the isolation, and even the shame.

If we’re honest, suffering feels like a waste – like a terrible tragedy from which we will never heal. It feels like an interruption to our real life, like something we want to break free from.

But the reality is the only way out of suffering is through it, and the only way I’ve found to redeem the dark days is to lean into the comfort others are giving me now with the hope that someday, by authentically sharing my struggles and successes, someone else will feel like they can survive – and even thrive – too.

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