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Emotional Well-Being and Cancer

Acknowledgement - removing the elephant from the room

Living with cancer myself, and having had endless chats with people, spouses or close relatives of people who have cancer, I find that the vast majority of us all have the same take on the acknowledgement issue. Ackowledgement is key to emotional well-being. Please, please acknowledge the situation! You can do this in many different ways. By acknowledging, you are immediately removing the “elephant from the room”.

Please don’t get me wrong – the actions of most people have been truly humbling but I can think of quite a few incidences that left me very upset and disturbed when my cancer was not acknowledged. People do this out of fear - they don’t know how to react.

Here is one example - I had finished chemo, had had a bunch of operations, and was halfway through my radiotherapy. I was physically incredibly weak. I was aching all over and I had made an appointment to have a gentle massage at my hairdresser’s - the hairdresser’s that I have been going to and been loyal to for sixteen years (except for the previous few months obviously) - God knows how much money I had spent there over the years! I walked into the very large, brightly lit salon and there were all the regular stylists cutting and blow-drying hair - all the people that I had bantered with for sixteen years. Now - I know for a fact they all knew I was extremely ill because a friend had told me they had all been talking about it. I walked across the floor and everybody kept their heads down or turned away, including the owner. It went eerily quiet except for the whirring hum of the hairdryers. I was so shocked. I went into the treatment room and undressed. The therapist who has known me for years said nothing either - even when I took my wig off and revealed my bald head. She said – “So how are you today?” – as if it was perfectly normal to see me so thin and with no hair. I answered that I was okay but aching a lot from my treatment. I explained, just in case she didn’t know that I had very advanced breast cancer and she said “yes, I know”, followed by some banal comment about the weather. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I cried, I got up to leave – I couldn’t stand it and I couldn’t stand the thought of running the gauntlet through the large salon to get out.

I guess I have to feel sorry for them - that they are all so full of their own fear, that they couldn’t just say, “Hello - I am so sorry to hear what you are going through,” or “we’ve been thinking of you”. That is all I mean by acknowledgement. I didn’t want pity, or to talk about it - just acknowledgment. It takes two seconds

Acknowledgment doesn’t really have to take the form of words either - it can be body language or subtle actions. I remember having dinner with another couple. It was quite a special occasion for me as I didn’t go out much at the time. I was also quite nervous about how the husband would react to me. I hadn’t seen him for ages and am not particularly close to him, but I am very good friends with his wife. When I walked into the restaurant, he got up, looked me straight in the eye and embraced me - not just the usual perfunctory kiss on the cheek, but he took me by the arms, held me tight and hugged me. That, combined with the look in his eyes, meant so much more than words.

We didn’t talk about my cancer at all that night - we didn’t need to - it had been acknowledged and I was feeling greatly comforted. We went on to have a really fun and relaxed dinner, stayed out far too late, laughed a lot and came home feeling tremendously uplifted.

Lucy O’Donnell is the author of “Cancer Is My Teacher” - a practical, physical & emotional guide from diagnosis to post recovery, including ideas for family and friends.

Follow Lucy on Twitter: @lucieodonnell and Facebook: Cancer Is My Teacher

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