Anna Crollman shares how she learned to ask for help from her community following her cancer diagnosis.
It can be tempting to shut people out when you feel grief or sadness after a cancer diagnosis. You may feel raw and vulnerable. The thought of sharing these emotions can be overwhelming.
You might minimise your pain and the severity of your diagnosis and treatment, instead of opening up. You may pretend you’re “fine.”
But how long can you go on pretending? What happens when active treatment ends and you’re falling apart a year later?
You may find that you have no one to turn to if you’ve kept your friends at a distance. People can have a hard time understanding the recovery and depression that might come along with life after cancer.
Protecting your friends and family from your sadness may seem easier in the beginning. But this could also lead to a greater sense of isolation and sadness down the line. I learned this lesson from my own battles with cancer and depression.
Letting people in when you’re raw with emotion can be terrifying. So I find it’s helpful to open up to your loved ones in stages.
Here are my tips to protect your heart and to teach your friends how to support you through this difficult period of treatment and potential depression.
Test the waters
Starting slow could help you to feel more comfortable about sharing your feelings. First, try to share a bit about the negative side of your diagnosis or feelings. Use this as an opportunity to observe how each person reacts.
I started by sharing how tough the cancer journey had been for me by describing some of the physical effects. I found people could relate to that more.
I also used metaphors to explain the long-term impact cancer was having on my life and mental state. One metaphor I love is that cancer is a passenger in your car. During treatment, cancer is riding shotgun. It’s in control and guides all of your decisions.
As you end treatment, cancer moves to the backseat and maybe eventually the boot as the years pass. But if you hit a speed bump or slam on the breaks, cancer can go flying back to the front seat and take control.
This approach to sharing with my less emotionally open friends and family helped me test the waters without being too vulnerable.
I found that many people surprise you and show that they can handle the more difficult side of your experience. Lean into that.
Remember: a good support wants to be around you even when you’re sad. You won’t feel pressure to change how you’re feeling if that person is offering the right support.
Go in prepared
Not everyone in your life is equipped to be emotionally supportive. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you. It just means they may be facing their own emotional challenges or may not have the life skills to handle the weight of your needs.
Recognising this reality ahead of time can help lessen any potential disappointment on your part.
I knew that some friends who had been in my life for a long time would not excel at emotional support. At first this disappointed me and I felt let down. But my husband helped me find jobs I could assign to them instead, like organising meals, sharing information about my treatment, or caring for my dog. These specific jobs allowed them to show they cared for me in other ways.
So don’t give up if someone isn’t equipped to be emotionally supportive! This friend may not be your emotional support. But you might be able to rely on them for other needs like childcare, errands, or treatment transportation.
Don’t beat around the bush
Once you’ve figured out the people who make up your support system, be honest. Remember that your illness is not you.
Try not to sugar-coat what you’re going through or what you need. Your friends and family will only know your needs and the severity of the situation if you tell them.
A work friend of mine also struggled with mental illness. She became my lifeline. I went into her office and closed the door and told her that I was at my lowest and just needed to cry. I needed to be told everything would be OK and that I would get through this. She was my rock during this difficult time.