I’m one of those people who have a few very dear close friends and family, and outside of that circle, I am actually quite private about personal details with acquaintances and professional colleagues. I have boundaries that I don’t often cross, and am rarely completely open or introspective with anyone else. Actually, I could make a pretty good argument that I’m not all that introspective, full stop. I’ve often observed that my friendships are built around me giving advice. I hope my friends want it that way. I probably give out unsolicited advice a little too freely, if I’m honest. I like to listen, then advise.
That all got turned upside down when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Suddenly I was the one with the secret, the personal “issue”; how, when and with whom to share it became a looming question. Whether to share it at all was a question for me, when it came to people beyond my closest circle of friends and loved ones. For me, there were stages to move through before considered communication was even possible. The shock of initially finding out something was seriously wrong was very psychologically telling, in retrospect. I immediately told four people: my husband, my mom, my closest friend at work, and my boss of 12 years. These were the “I’m processing what I’ve just heard” calls. These were really calls for help. I knew nothing, no details, I had to go to the hospital to even get more information beyond “Your scan shows a glioma”. These were the people I trusted to be there for me, people for whom I didn’t have to think about how to frame my words. These were my 911 calls, the people I had to say this out loud to, because I knew it was happening, but it was surreal and only by saying it out loud to them could I start to process it.
Next came a time where everything was in flux, because there were follow-up procedures and a biopsy to be scheduled, and I myself wasn’t sure what the status was, or what to even tell people. If I have one piece of advice out of that time, it’s that you should resist the urge to fall prey to the uncertainty and isolate yourself. It’s very easy to think “Oh, I don’t even know what to tell people”, or that you simply don’t want to talk about it. I toyed with the idea of whether talking about it would give it some kind of power, and that perhaps I could keep the whole experience more in control if I didn’t grant it more space in my life and relationships.
Two things tipped the scales for me. The first occurred the morning after I’d received this phone call, “Your scan shows a glioma, go to Emergency”. I had spent the previous day at the hospital, I’d only talked to those four 911 people. I got up and got dressed for work, but I couldn’t turn my car in the direction of the office. I pulled into a coffee shop drive-through. I was sitting there, and I had the sudden mad urge to yell at the girl serving me “What are you doing? How are you just pouring my coffee like that? I have a BRAIN TUMOUR!!!” I giggled (more than a little madly) and drove to my mom’s house, where a close aunt and uncle were staying for the night. When my uncle hugged me, I said “I’m scared”, and he said “I know. So am I.” That made me feel better. Not worse. My instinctive, intellectual urge was that breaking down or opening up would make something worse, but it did the opposite. That simple exchange made me think, “Yeah, damn right, this is scary. Look, even my tough uncle who takes care of everyone says this is scary. Right. Buckle up, okay, I’m not crazy. This IS scary.”
The second thing that made me come out of my shell in terms of sharing was actually my workplace culture. I am responsible for supervising our Human Resources function, and for general operations. I know how gossip or drama tempts people and drains productivity, I’ve witnessed people feed off of drama in a workplace, use it to feed their own egos. It seemed radical to me, an experiment of sorts, but my instincts were that if I tried to contain this at work, it would turn into a SECRET that people would speculate and WHISPER about. Or worse, too many closed doors might lead to a suspicion that something bad was happening concerning the company or the workplace. So, against my natural compulsion for privacy, I chose to sit down one on one with each of my colleagues and share what I knew. I chose not to wait for more information, to tell them each that I didn’t know much more than what I knew, and what I thought next steps would be. I asked for their support and good thoughts. I like to think I’m tough, but I cried in most of those meetings. I told people I didn’t want this to be a big secret, that they could ask me for updates, and that I might be out of the office, so I wanted people to know what to expect as much as possible. I felt like I was sticking my neck out. In return, I am fortunate to be able to say that I gained a great deal of respect for my colleagues that day. No one made me feel weak or pitied, everyone was supportive and thanked me for being forthright. In short, I felt blessed.
I shared with other friends and family through social media. I started a private Facebook group, and apologized that we hadn’t been able to call people who might have preferred to receive this news another way, but hey, it’s the age of social media, right? This was a fantastic way to keep folks up to date and bought my family some peace through the procedures and waiting time. Everyone who wanted to offer support could do so there, and be kept up to date of developments without wondering if it was okay to call.
I cannot emphasize enough how sharing what was happening to me, with my close support circle, and beyond it, really positively influenced how I’ve dealt with it and how I feel about this experience and life in general. It really fundamentally changed my outlook on people in my life. I realized that this experience has been an opportunity to really feel how many people care for me, and how fortunate I am for that. I suspect not everyone has that, and I actually didn’t know the extent of support available to me in my life. I’m glad I witnessed it.
Bottom line: I thought sharing something so personal and scary would seem egomaniacal or narcissistic in some way. That was the furthest thing from the truth, in the end. Sharing what I was going through actually let it breathe, and gave me room to breathe as well.
Here are some things I learned:
- What to say, how to say it? I developed a preparatory approach, mainly based on trial and error (sorry to those folks who I experimented on; prior to developing this approach, I employed more of a “bomb dropping” strategy, which I ultimately discarded in favour of this one), where I’d prepare the listener for the fact that I was going to say something that would sound left field batshit CRAZY. “I have something I want to tell you, and there’s no way for it not to sound dramatic, so I apologize for that in advance, but I want to be candid. I’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumour.”
- I had to be ready to comfort people I shared with; it’s a scary thing, and many people are shocked or upset. I let them know I was doing okay and tried to be honest about how I was dealing with things; this helped me actually be okay and deal with it, oddly enough.
- I fully realize that choosing to be open about something like this at work is not an option available to everyone; for some people, it may affect your employment situation, benefits, opportunities for advancement. I was fortunate to be in a workplace where I felt confident of receiving support.
- Of course, not everyone responds positively; some people find the whole conversation awkward and don’t want updates or to hear any more about it. I found that didn’t bother me; it’s a great way to keep the sharing in check.
That last point reminds me – don’t overshare. Find some balance in your relationships, this is not an excuse to talk about nothing except yourself. Unless it’s on your blog; that’s your domain. Literally.