Out there

My eyes were caught by a very interesting tweet this week, from blogging friend Bringing up Goliath where she asked “Wondering when to tell a new friend my breast cancer story. Has this happened to anyone else? How did you bring it up?”

This is something I immediately identified with, and there followed a flurry of tweets and Facebook discussion which quickly revealed that this is a dilemma faced by many of us.  This was developed into her blog post which appeared later the same day.  The post beautifully describes the quandary we find ourselves in when connecting with someone new, developing a friendship and when and how to “disclose” such an important piece of personal information.

At the crux of this is the fact that although many of us are not in the midst of heavy treatment, we have been and we live with the knowledge that we may again be.  That is just the reality of the diagnosis.  It is not about being negative or positive, it is just a fact.  It might not be visible but it is there.  so this means it is an important part of who we are now, it is a Big Deal and it is Never Over.

This is a predicament I often find myself in, living overseas and amongst a community of transient people.   In my professional and personal life I meet new people regularly.  One of the first questions we tend to be asked, after name and what are we doing here, is “how long have you been here?”  And that is where it starts to become difficult for me.  I have been here, in Myanmar, for over 2 years.  But my first year was the lost year and I don’t really feel that I can truly say I have “been here” that long.    But the question is usually asked far too early on to be able to clarify.  Depending on how much I feel I connect with this person I might say nothing, or I might drop a bland “I missed most of my first year due to ill health”.  And then I try to move the conversation in another direction so that I don’t have to “come out” so soon in a possible friendship.  But that then gives the problem that if I connect with that person more regularly, if we develop a friendship, then when is the right time and how on earth do I disclose this?  I have a strong urge to share this Big Important Fact, which has become an elephant in the room.  But I am the only one who knows it is there.

This reminds me so much of a similar disclosure question which I also struggle with.  Someone very important, close to me, is gay.  Lets call that person A.   In our own home context, disclosure, while never easy, is familiar ground.  However, in different parts of the world this is not an easy subject to broach and it requires a very sensitive reading of a context and situation.  As friendships and working relationships span a wealth of diversity in terms of nationality and background, so too do the values and beliefs held.  And that is something which must be respected and understood.  I remember misjudging a situation horribly in one country I lived.  I had been there for a number of years and developed some very close friendships.  One particular friend and I were very close.  We worked together on issues of diversity and equity which were deeply rooted and challenging.  We had also supported each other through a number of personal crises and problems.   So following a visit from the aforementioned A with their partner, I had a long chat with my friend.  Now A is very open and comfortable about disclosure, and I have “carte blanche” to be open about their status.  A signal was given and I shared with my friend the fact that A is gay.  To say that my friend was visibly shocked is an understatement.  I instantly realised that I had misjudged the situation and that she was most uncomfortable.  But like a disclosure about breast cancer, it cannot be retracted.  Once revealed it is well and truly out there.  We both changed the subject, and did not return to it.  I felt dreadful for having made her so uncomfortable and for not respecting and realising just how deep rooted beliefs are, even though we had worked together on diversity and discrimination.  But the incredible thing was, that months later, she raised the subject with me herself.  She asked if the friend who had visited with A was in fact their partner.  I confirmed that they were in a relationship and we were able to move forward.  It taught me such a lot about the complexity and diversity of deep rooted beliefs.  And she is still one of my closest friends nearly a decade later. But with every new friendship, if the topic of friends and families comes up, I always have to stop and think whether it is appropriate or not to disclose that A is gay or whether a little white lie is easier for everyone.

The awkwardness of sharing the fact that I have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer might have different reasons for its discomfort, but the result is similar. This is often further complicated in this overseas context where friendships are formed with people I might not connect with in different circumstances.  I live in quite a small city and in terms of expats (I really try and avoid using that term but find no choice here) it is like a small village.  And that means that word gets round.  It is no secret in social and professional circles that I am “the woman who was treated with breast cancer” but that does not mean I know who knows it, and that makes it more complicated.  And let’s face it, over a year after the end of the visible treatment and sick leave, it is not necessarily something which is still mentioned.

Another aspect of this mobile and transient life when coupled with the internet and technological advance, is the reconnection with people I may have lost contact with.  This has happened a number of times, thanks to Facebook and Twitter particularly and I am delighted to reconnect with friends around the globe.  But the same question arises, and is really difficult.  When and how do I tell them that I am not the same person in many was, as I was before.  And I am not talking about the differences due to surgery and treatment, but the difference in my mindset and psychology.

In all of these situations, I find that when I get to a stage that I feel that it is like “keeping a secret” not to have disclosed, then I try and seek a signal or opening.  I also drop little hints, being on long term medication, having been medivacked, having a serious illness hep to lay the foundation for the Big Disclosure.

This is a situation which keeps coming up and is not likely to stop doing so any time soon.  So when I am introduced to someone new here, and I am asked “How long have you been here?” I feel myself hesitate before I hear myself reply “Around 2 years……..”

17 thoughts on “Out there

  1. Philippa, I’m so glad you decided to go ahead with this post. So many of your words resonated with me and I found myself wishing I had included some of it in my post, especially, connecting with old friends via facebook. Funny, I’ll drop hints there, but will never truly admit what happened. So, I completely understand your concerns. It could be the other person’s beliefs that stop me, but most often, it’s simply fear of disclosing something so very personal, leaving myself vulnerable to their opinions. However, I think I’m starting to care a little less about that and just want to be honest about who I have become.

    Thank you so much for crediting Bringing Up Goliath. I’m grateful and always love reading about your experiences. To me, you could write about anything and I’d want to read it. xoxo Stacey

    • Stacey – thank YOU for the inspiration – from the first tweet I knew this was going to be interesting to explore! And I had a few more days to work on my ideas …

      You are right – it s that vulnerability, and we know that we are exposing something so personal.
      Thank you 🙂 x

  2. Glad you gathered up your courage and posted this Phillippa. Yes, we are all of us not the same people we were before. Even for me, the partner, its an elephant in the room moment, always. Happened to me just this week, in London, talking to a new friend/customer over dinner. Our conversation got on to health, fitness and well being. And I could see ‘breast cancer’ coming from a mile off. So imagine my astonishment when I told her, and about the book and the blog. And her beaming response, ‘Oh yes, Being Sarah, I’ve heard of her!’ It always takes courage, and there’s no going back, but just sometimes life can surprise you, in a good way xx

    • It’s always there isn’t it – that elephant is following me around! It is interesting to hear that from your perspective it is very much the same. Yes, it is very true that we can have lovely surprises and we need to keep them in mind when fearing the not so easy reactions. I re-connected with a former colleague recently after a number of years (while I have been moving from country to country). I was not sure how to broach the breast cancer subject but it turned out that she had seen my blog link, read and caught up. Incredibly her own younger sister had been diagnosed so we were completely in the same space. And she is from a country where the levels of breast cancer are much less than in the developed context so it was very unusual. Completely unexpected.

  3. Philippa,
    Terrific post. I particularly like these statements “When and how do I tell them that I am not the same person in many was, as I was before. And I am not talking about the differences due to surgery and treatment, but the difference in my mindset and psychology.”

    I think that gets to the heart of the matter about why it’s so hard. After cancer we are different people and I don’t mean just physically. It’s hard sometimes to know how to convey or reveal this to others, or whether or not we even should. I tried to write about this recently in my old photos post. You said it much better here in your post.

    One thing I do know, I don’t worry so much anymore about what people will think of me… Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Guess I don’t care! ha. Thanks for a great post. You are so wise.

    • Thank you so much N – I loved your old photos post, and yes it really resonated with how much we have changed psychologically and how on earth we begin to convey that to people who knew the “old” us. It’s encouraging to see how that changes over time. PS I’m not really wise – in fact my oncologist tells me I think too much!!

  4. This is a very difficult post. To disclose or not to disclose, that is the question. I had that very dilemma when I was in Ireland in May. Once I got to know a few of my travel companions more deeply, I shared if I felt I wanted to. Those few souls were very sympathetic and loving. But I don’t always expect that response. Fabulous post!

    • Yes, it is true that being in a different context makes it more complicated. I am glad you had such a supportive and understanding response. Thank you 🙂

  5. Philippa, this is soooo true. I find this now in my dating life, at what point do I tell a guy this part of my history? I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, or conversely feel I have a target on my back. I kinda made it a need to know basis and have found, that especially the further ought you are, the less it seems a part of your story…at least for me.

    Well done girl.


    • Oh Lauren, I can hardly imagine how tough this must be. The comments to Stacey’s post discussed this quite a bit too and highlighted how difficult this is. For me it is a double edged sword, being in a marriage brings security and familiarity but I feel I have almost sacrificed a significant part of my femininity and disguise my changes.

      As we move forward too, we collect all sorts of different “baggage” which complicates future relationships, romantic and non romantic.

      Good luck and thank you, my friend xxxx

  6. Philippa there is much here in your post, and the comments, which resonates deeply with me. I don’t want to be a victim or a hero… and once you’ve disclosed the fact, it’s ‘out’ forever, you can’t take it back. I often reflect that’s it’s ‘funny’ I that I find it difficult to decide whether to mention ‘it’ especially as I’ve published a whole book about it! But I am finding now that I am accepting that ‘it’ is a part of my life – a whole big part of the last five years – and that I’m able to tell people and feel OK about it, and that I’m developing a deeper connection with the people who are comfortable with it. If they’re not comfortable then I’m not in the right company.
    Thanks for this post, it gave me much to reflect on the past few days.
    Best, Sarah

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Sarah – and for your insights. Yes, you can’t just give a little of the information – it’s all or nothing and once told it is told. So much like the disclosure about being gay – there are no shades of gay 😉

      And I very much understand how much sharing is a dilemma even though on one hand you are very open and “public” through your book and blog, but in personal connections how and whether to broach it. I find it hard that people think that because it is in the past, it is behind you but as you so rightly say, it is a big part of our lives and who we are now.

      Thank you so much for your reflections

  7. I can’t say I understand the weight of having cancer but this is something I can truly relate to, especially when I’m gay working in an environment where you meet a lot of people who expect you to be straight.

    As you’ve mentioned, I find it hard sometimes to come up with a ‘should i just tell people’ or ‘should i not’. Things would actually even get worse when ladies don’t really get the hints i’m throwing at them and given I do have a sister, the last thing i want to do is to offend any ladies into leading them on for any potential intimacy.

    Then, I came up with the whole ‘maybe I’ll tell them only when I’m asked’ routine but funnily enough.. there’s always a crowd that likes to be told and those who don’t like to be told..

    it’s a gamble if you ask me
    and it’s only courage that will get us through

    my reaction to your revelation was respect. When you first told me you had breast cancer, I was actually a bit sad since it’s a bit of an omen to use such words in the same sentence with the name of a person I like having around. But my second reaction was respect and ‘surprisingly’ comfort.

    Call me weird but i find so much comfort in people who’s been there, done that than those who have not been through this much, yet dramatizes about every little thing.

    The fact that you’re a beautiful person with so much courage and optimism kinda wins anyways!!! And yes, despite being your blog reader, I ALSO work with you so i know how you’re like in real life! and I’m so damn proud and honored to have you as a great supervisor and a good friend in my life (and no, i’m not expecting any raise in salaries hahaha)! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment 🙂 It is really interesting to have your insight and perspective on this. It is interesting about how this ties in with expectations of others too.

      And it’s lovely to work with such a sensitive and supportive colleague – it’s great working with you. And delighted that it has nothing to do with a pay rise ha ha 😉

  8. Phillippa,

    This is an evergreen post for an evergreen problem. It reaches beyond the telling; because once you have “told” someone you have cancer (or once someone else has and you know they know), then it is always out there, and you notice when they then *do* or they *don’t* ask you how you are doing later down the line. I was at Thanksgiving dinner a few days ago, and there were three people there that I spend every T-Day with (relatives of a close friend). I fully expected someone to bring “it” up. No one did. No one asked me how i was doing. It was as if everything was exactly as it was last T-Day…before I knew I had the Big C. I shake my head. I don’t know if it is that they don’t know what to say or if they have simply forgotten? This is a thread, a constant one, that has run through my diagnosis and treatment. I just don’t get it.

    I love your line, “In all of these situations, I find that when I get to a stage that I feel that it is like “keeping a secret” not to have disclosed, then I try and seek a signal or opening. ” That really is the line in the sand. Does it feel like I’m keeping a secret? If it does, then I walk about it.

    Thanks for shedding light on this all-too-familiar topic!


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