I Have Cancer, What’s New With You?

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.

Two days after being diagnosed with cancer, I received a call from the Red Cross asking if I’d give blood in an upcoming blood drive.

I was a regular blood donor, so I received these calls a couple of times a year.

This time, my head nearly exploded with a thousand thoughts: Should I tell this anonymous person that I have cancer? Will she write “Bob Riter has cancer” in some computerized database? Can people with cancer give blood?

I said, “Sorry, I can’t make it this time.”

When I hung up, I realized that I had been unable to say, “I can’t give blood because I was just diagnosed with cancer.”

The words “I have cancer” seemed to get stuck in my throat.

Nearly everyone who gets diagnosed with cancer struggles saying those words at first. It’s an admission that you really do have cancer and that much in life is suddenly so different.

The first people you tell are your family and close friends. That’s emotional, but you know that they’re somehow in this journey with you.

Telling more casual acquaintances can be downright weird. People often ask, “How are you?” as a form of greeting. They expect to hear, “Fine. Yourself?”

A new cancer diagnosis makes “how are you?” a difficult question.

For weeks, I wrestled with what to say to whom. I’d ask myself, “How well do I know this person? Who are their friends and who will they tell? Will their feelings be hurt if I don’t tell them?”

No wonder shopping at Wegman’s was exhausting. I had too many mental calculations to make when people asked, “Hi Bob. What’s up with you?”

I once responded to “how are you?” by saying, “Well, I was just diagnosed with breast cancer and I’m going to have a mastectomy next week and then a few months of chemotherapy. What’s new with you?”

Although his expression was priceless, I decided that wasn’t the smoothest approach.

As time went by, I became more relaxed about talking about my cancer. Nearly everyone was supportive and many people stepped up and became dearer friends than ever before.

I did lose a few acquaintances. For whatever reason, they couldn’t handle my having cancer and they gradually disappeared from my life. I think they weren’t sure what to say at first and later felt awkward about never having said anything. (By the way, it’s never too late to reconnect with those who have been ill. A card that says, “My thoughts continue to be with you” are always welcomed).

It’s now many years after my cancer diagnosis and I’m about as open about my cancer as one can be. I’m not above showing my mastectomy scar to total strangers over dinner.

But I still remember how difficult it was for me to say, “I have cancer,” when the Red Cross called that night.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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