Cancer for Christmas and the etiquette of personal calamity

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December 18, 2017 by 8junebugs

Confession the first: I own a well-thumbed copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.

Confession the second: I did not consult it the week before sharing on Facebook what amounts to a working cancer diagnosis.

Briefly: There was a hidden malignancy* within an otherwise murky but benign mass that had taken over the left lobe of my thyroid over the last three years. The cancer was gone before we knew it was there. But there are protocols in place and more procedures ahead to check any possible spread of the disease. Thyroid cancer is very treatable and rarely aggressive. I’m young and healthy. I have good insurance and access to excellent doctors.

I also have very small children and a partner with a significant disability and chronic pain that make any disruption a logistical nightmare. It affects how we talk about things with people, how we set up supports, and how my brain plots a course of action.

There is a modest ruffling of feathers every time I share news of Big Personal Sadness on the internet. It doesn’t apply the same way to good news — we’ve trained ourselves to watch for baby announcements and pictures online. We share successes large and small on Facebook and pat each other on our virtual backs and feel that dopamine rush from participating a little bit in a friend’s happiness.

We experience our family and friends’ joy in real time.

Bad news feels different. I don’t have any data on this (bet you Facebook does, though), but I get it. It seems too impersonal, like, “Why am I hearing about this at the same time as that person you barely even knew from high school? I thought we were closer.”

We were. We are. And there used to be a better structure in place to cover the Bad News conversations with more connection; I used to have a mom and grandmothers to pass it on to family members. I used to have crew three times a week. And I used to have time to talk on the phone or spend hours sipping coffee with friends and chewing over even our smallest worries.

Those days have long since passed. I am, as a dear friend noted this summer, right in the thick of it. As well, I’ve been a blogger for a lot of years (not that you could tell from my more recent archives). Most people read about my divorce and Mom’s death online before they heard it by word of mouth.

I write better than I talk.

And I am exhausted.

When my doctor told me on Monday that I had papillary T1b thyroid cancer, my dad was picking Grayson up from school and Graham was holding a fussing Alex and I was already knee-deep in more post-op activity than advised in the first week. Suddenly, we had a little over two weeks to plan for another surgery, another night away, and another week of trying to explain to the boys that Mommy can’t pick them up. Again.

The people who found out first were the grown-ups in the house. The people who found out next were immediate family and a cousin with a similar neck lump she’d better get checked before I get on a plane and stab it myself. And the only other people who found out offline, away from Facebook, are the nearby friends who’ve been our first line of support through this craptastic year of death, illness, and life with a newborn and a high-needs preschooler. They heard fast because we needed their help. Fast. They could bring over some dinner. They could watch the boys, who already know them, for a couple of hours so Graham could come to my post-op appointment with me. Everyone else found out the next day, when I’d had a moment to think about how I needed to handle this.

People who diapered my butt in the 1970s and coworkers from 2011 all experienced my shock and dismay the same way and as immediately as they experienced the joy of Alex’s birth nearly a year ago, and Grayson’s before that. And that was intentional.

My energy right now is very limited. The needs of my family are very high. My doctor said “cancer” and I chose to spend my energy on my kids instead of having multiple difficult, awkward conversations with anyone who wasn’t immediately affected. (And really, who answers the phone these days? I frequently don’t.)

This isn’t everyone’s m.o., and I understand that. But I also have a hefty stack of messages from people over the years who did something important or felt better because of how I shared the less-fun news, and that matters to me, too. For every person who thought there should have been a phone call, there’s another person texting me separately about their plans to get their lump checked.

This is also just how I live my truth. It’s nearly 2018 and I am equally cool with finding out everything online and not finding out at all if you don’t feel the need to tell me at the moment.

Tell me! Tell me everything! I care about you! And tell me in whatever way is most comfortable for you.

But if you don’t, I promise to assume and accept that, for whatever reason, right now I am in an outer ring of your personal concentric circles of grief. Just point me to whomever is charge of telling me whether someone in the house has food allergies, or which email to use for your Munchery gift card.


* Hidden Malignancy is both a great band name and the overriding theme for 2017. It applies to SO MUCH.



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