Column: You don’t have to say the right thing

In the first couple weeks after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March, telling my friends about my illness felt a lot like dropping a bomb or tearing something down.
With each person I let in on the news, I had a mental image of Miley Cyrus in the video for the song “Wrecking Ball.”
“I came in like a wrecking ball,” she sings, straddling the demolition tool as it swings. (If you don’t get the Miley Cyrus reference, I’m sorry. Maybe I’m more sorry if you do get it.)
What I mean is that when my friends asked me how I was doing, they were likely expecting updates about my work or relationship or some other mundane details about my life.
They did not expect me to tell them I have cancer. Bad news like that felt like a wrecking ball or a bomb to drop in a conversation. It just stopped it cold.
A couple of friends found out after they sent me a text message, just to check on me, knowing that a global pandemic can be a hectic time to work for a local health department.
“How are you doing?” they asked, innocently. I knew that with social distancing guidelines in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wouldn’t get the chance to share the news with them over dinner or coffee any time soon. Texting them the news felt like a better idea than for them to find out over social media. (Though social media may have been a better alternative to them finding out by reading about it in a newspaper column)
So I texted them my bad news: “I’ve been diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.” I also called and told a couple of friends, and even told my parents the news over the phone. My mom had known about my tests though, so it wasn’t nearly a surprise for her.
There are better ways to tell your friends and loved ones you have a life-threatening illness, but there’s not any wrong way. If there’s a guidebook that explains the best ways to tell people about something bad like having cancer, I’ve not read it.
More importantly, I wasn’t expecting my friends to have the perfect response when they got the news.
I can think of some bad ways to respond. I wouldn’t say, “Well, we’re all going to die of something.” But there’s not a perfect response to getting news like that. I have not read the guidebook for that either.
I mostly don’t remember exactly what my friends said to me in those early text messages and phone calls. What I do remember is that they offered their support and love, mostly from afar.
So, if you get news like that from a good friend, this is me letting you off the hook for having the right words to say. There are no right words to say. What matters more is showing your support and love in some way.
While we’re on the subject of the right things to say, I hope my friends don’t ever hesitate to talk to me about what’s going on in their lives. I hope they still feel comfortable talking to me about their long days, work problems or relationship issues. Life is going on around me and I want to hear about my friends’ struggles, even if they think the cancer card trumps anything bad going on in their lives. You cannot compare pain from life to life. It doesn’t work that way.

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