This article is adapted by Dr Jane Clark from an article originally written by Jane and Dr Peter Harvey. See our introduction for a background on this series of articles.
You won’t need to be reminded just how helpful a kindly word or supportive act can be. Likewise, you will need no reminders as to how hurtful and insensitive other words and comments can be.
We have already quoted one phrase which could be classed as not only impossible but unhelpful and insensitive as well – trying to ‘forget all about it and put it all behind you – move on‘ (see Moving Forward 5: Getting Back to Normal and Other Unhelpful Phrases).
This, of course, is often just what the person saying it to you wants to do and it can make for significant difficulties in communication if you want to talk about your worries whilst they want to act as if nothing has happened. Although it is important to acknowledge other people’s fears and anxieties which often provoke overly optimistic or excessively reassuring statements, it doesn’t make them any easier to bear or tolerate.
It is quite probable that you will already have developed a mask that you put on in some situations in order to hide some of your real feelings. Most people need to defend themselves against the unwittingly hurtful or the crudely insensitive remark. Many of you will have learned to smile sweetly as someone says brightly to you “My, you look really well’ when you actually feel terrible.
There will be times you will need to keep this defence going because people will still say unhelpful things. There are people who catastrophize for you… “I really don’t know how you cope. If it had been me, I’d have gone completely to pieces”; or those people who know someone… “My auntie/uncle had what you’ve got…they died of course”; or people who tell you… “look on the bright side. There are many worse off than you”; or people who tell you (or order you!) that “You must be positive” (see Moving Forward 17: On Being Positive and Thinking Positively); or those who completely ignore you, saying that they thought that you probably had enough on your plate or that “I didn’t know what to say”.
You may well have you own horror stories which will leave their own mark on you and your future relationships.
“I felt that one friend seemed to be desperate to know the outcome of each appointment or my results at every stage. I think her intention was to be supportive and there for me but, at times, it felt like she was almost enjoying the drama of it all. I feel terrible saying that about my friend, but I experienced her calls and texts as too intrusive. I needed time to digest things before I was ready to share”
Re-instating your social network
Re-instating your social network – or re-configuring it – can be a difficult task. How do you feel about those people who left you well alone during your treatment? Do you want to start over again with them? What about those people who – perhaps unintentionally – hurt you with some of the things they said to you when you were struggling? If you think back to the boat analogy – who do you want on your crew and who do you need to lose overboard?!
What about your fellow patients with whom you may well have shared some very close moments during your treatment – do you want to keep up a friendship that might remind you of those difficult times? In this digital age, the supportive cancer community is more accessible than ever before with things like Facebook groups and networks via Twitter. These communities come with huge benefits as the knowledge and true understanding from women who have been through breast cancer is unparalleled. You can also share your experience and help others who are just starting out on their cancer experience.
But they can also have their drawbacks. They expose you to all the potentials and possibilities, such as an online friend, who was in a similar situation to you but who then dies can be devastating and rock your sense of stability. They can also keep you hooked into the world of cancer when you might be ready to move away from cancer and everything related to it.
There is no easy answer but think about the pros and cons for you personally of remaining part of the cancer community. I have had women say to me that they find themselves following the stories of women whose cancer has recurred and becoming compelled to check on them every day. But whilst they do these checks, they are overwhelmed with anxiety and fear about their own future. At this point, I encourage them to balance out the urge to know what’s happening with the cost to their anxiety every day.
There may be people around you who, in their anxiety to be helpful, actually get in the way of your recovery by doing too much and rather over-protecting you. Their offer to put the kettle on to make a cup of tea might be welcome but it can also undermine your ability to regain the ordinary. Putting on the kettle may be a symbol for you of regaining confidence and trust in yourself and may also be the limit of what you can do.
Over-helpful people may not be as supportive as they imagine! Perhaps the way to deal with this sort of problem is to be quite-direct in asking for what you want – not allowing them to give you what they think you want. The best sort of support seems to come from those people who ask you the question “How can I help?” and who are prepared to follow your request.
There is no easy or universal answer to these questions, and they are decisions that only you can take. You may not feel able to confront these things right away – especially if it might lead to conflict with friends and loved-ones. But there may be a time when it does have to be dealt with if your feelings become ones of resentment or having been let down by people who you thought that you could trust.
People have often said that they find out who their real friends are during treatment for cancer. You do not want to add to your burdens by having to pretend and act as if nothing has happened when you meet people who have not given you the support you feel you need or deserve. So, it may be that you have to be very straightforward with some people – and may even lose a friendship because of that.
These are not easy decisions to take and they may require a great deal of thought and discussion with trusted confidants before you commit yourself to doing anything.
Dr Jane Clark, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
The information and content provided in this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.