Parking lot moments after a cancer diagnosis

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

You’re initially stunned when you hear the words, “You have cancer.” Your brain freezes and things are a blur for at least a few minutes.

A friend recently asked me what went through my mind once the initial numbness began to fade. For me, this was when I had checked out of the doctor’s office and was sitting in my car in the parking lot. My hands were on the wheel, but I hadn’t started the engine. I stared straight ahead and thought, “I’m probably going to die in the next year or two.”

This friend said that her “parking lot moment” focused on who she needed to tell about her diagnosis and in what order.

As I sat in my car in the doctor’s parking lot, I also wished that my mother was still alive. (She had died of cancer at a relatively young age). I think many of us are hard-wired to reach out to mom at times like this.

In my columns, I regularly admonish readers not to say platitudes like, “Don’t worry – everything will be fine,” to friends diagnosed with cancer. Those words generally cut off – rather than encourage – honest conversation.

But when you’re sitting in that parking lot immediately after learning that you have cancer, you want someone to say that everything will be OK.

We don’t need promises that our cancers will be cured, but we do need someone to reach out and reassure us that we won’t be alone in the months ahead.

These words can be spoken by loved ones and friends. More often than you realize, these words are spoken with absolute sincerity by nurses, radiation therapists, physicians and other health professionals.

We always remember who was kind to us in the parking lot after getting a cancer diagnosis.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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