Becky’s blog: Cancer and relationships

August 11, 2014

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By Becky MacLean

I’ve been thinking about how to approach the topic of relationships and the cancer experience, and I’ve arrived at is this question: how do you want to relate your experience to others?

You help decide the shape, strength and connection of your relationships with others by sharing more or less information (medical history, emotional state, hopes/fears, stories, etc.), how you share that information, how you receive information, and how you handle the reactions of others. Every single person with whom you interact is a kind of relationship; family, friends, health care professionals, strangers, neighbours, significant others. Each of those relationships is adaptable and individual.

When you’re dealing with a major life event such as cancer —¬† currently or in the after-math — how do you decide to share in that experience? For me, the answer to this question has evolved over the years. It is likely that as you come through your own experiences the answers for you will change as well.

I would love to have the emotional freedom and personal strength to be entirely open and honest with every person I meet, but the truth is I don’t always have it in me. I find it really challenging to accept that because I strive to be authentic and honest in my interactions with others. It can be hard to remember that I’m not obligated to share everything about my experience, and whatever I choose to share in a given moment is okay.

There are a lot of factors that decide how I’m going to interact with others, and how I will relate my experience to them. Generally these factors can be lumped into two categories: nature of the relationship, and my comfort level. The nature of our relationship — health care (doctors, nurses), family/partner (immediate, extended, chosen), friends (close, acquaintance), professional (teacher, employer, colleague, co-worker, client), and everyone else — is an excellent guide to how I approach sharing in my experience. There are certain kinds of information that are important and necessary to share with health care providers, that aren’t needed when interacting with co-workers.

My comfort level at a given time is a result of other factors such as past experiences with the person, how other people have reacted to the kind of information I’m preparing to share, and how I am feeling (i.e., Am I in a good emotional/physical space? If not, do I feel that I will be supported? Do I feel safe in allowing myself to be vulnerable?).

Another consideration: Is there an obligation to share? It can be easy to feel that we need to share and as a result I have felt a sense of guilt or shame for withholding information from those that care about me. (Bren√© Brown has a great Ted talk on the topic of guilt/shame — while you’re at it her talk on vulnerability is also great.) The truth is, other than medically relevant information, there isn’t an actual obligation to share, only a perceived obligation, so share what you care!

Navigating relationships can be tricky, and it can be anxiety-inducing trying to figure out how to share in our experiences. Consider the kind of relationship you want to have with another person. You can help decide the shape, strength, and connection of your relationships with others by sharing more or less information, how you share that information, and how you handle the reactions of others. The rest is up to everyone else.

I hope you are able to find compassion for yourself in every interaction, and that you are able to have the kinds of relationships you seek.

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