Health Magazine

Can You Listen When the Words Are About Breast Cancer?

Posted on the 11 October 2015 by Jean Campbell

Your friend asks you to go with her when she gets the result of her breast biopsy. You say yes, but you are really nervous about what to say or do if the results are bad. You don’t know how much you can listen to about a subject that scares you. Most of us would feel the same way. The important thing…you agree to go anyway. You are a good friend.

You have been putting off visiting your cousin who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. You’ve heard from other family members that she’s really having a hard time dealing with treatment. You really don’t know if you want to put yourself in the position of having to listen to her talk about what she is going through. You two are the same age; how will you handle a conversation that is going to be hard to listen to without thinking…this could be me.

The toughest, yet most meaningful part of my years as a patient navigator came each time I met a woman, outside a doctor’s office, after she had just been told she had breast cancer. No two reactions were ever quite the same. I had to listen very carefully, to understand what each woman needed to hear at that moment in time.

Many women didn’t want to speak with me until I told them I was a survivor. Then they wanted to know everything I was willing to share with them about getting through treatment and on with life. Others just cried and cried. Still others were angry. Most were frightened; afraid of treatment and its outcomes. Some women shared their fears about telling their spouses or significant others, their children, family and friends. Almost all of the women shared their fears about changes in their body image and how that would affect their relationships

At first I felt very inadequate, unequal to the task, but I learned something from each woman I met.

I learned that these meetings were not about me and my comfort level. They were about giving distraught women someone to be there for them, someone who would listen and would not judge them for their feeling or their fears.

I learned not to interrupt, or try to control the situation. My job was to listen. I found that some needed to be held, while others paced. I was not there as a counselor, I was there as a survivor, who had a gift to give…hope.

I have been lucky enough to get feedback from friends I’ve accompanied to treatment. Each, in her own way, said the same thing. It didn’t matter so much what I said, but that I was there, a reminder that others care and will be there during the scary times as well as the sad times.

One friend, who has been living with metastatic disease for several years, recently shared that our phone conversations, the ones where we just talked about the everyday things of life, made her feel more normal. She rarely wanted to talk about her cancer, or what was happening to her. She wanted an escape, a time out from all things cancer.

I asked her about the times she wanted and needed to talk about her cancer. Surprisingly, she told me that my listening, not asking questions, not commenting were best for her. I gave her the opportunity to deal with her reality and speak openly about it, something she couldn’t do with her husband and son Her husband was having a very difficult time dealing with her stage 4 cancer. When she would make any reference to her disease, he would change the subject or tell her there was no need to think or talk about her disease. Her son would encourage her to think happy thoughts and concentrate on feeling better. They isolated her, forcing her to focus on their feelings and not her own.

So, if the opportunity to listen comes your way, take it knowing you are going to be giving a very special gift.

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