I told someone a secret recently. Well, it’s not quite a secret since quite a few people know it already, but I hadn’t felt the need to tell that particular person about it.
In a strange turn of events leading out of boredom at work, a coworker and I were trying to figure out via Facebook if we knew anyone mutually since we found out that we both grew up in the same area. One thing led to another and they stumbled across my Facebook page, and subsequently onto the “secret”: – a giant pink, purple, and teal banner reading “September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month.”
They asked who it was I knew that had thyroid cancer.
“Uh, I did.”
Yep. My not-so-secret was out. I had thyroid cancer.
“Really? When was this?”
“I was 20 when they found it. I’ve got a nice scar, now.” I quickly pointed at the faded pink line on my neck, and hoped that they couldn’t tell I was shaking with nerves and that it would be the last question about it. Thankfully, it was.
Almost 4 years since my all-clear, I still get nervous letting people in on this part of my past. Most of the time I don’t bring it up unless asked. My introverted, Type-B self is much more comfortable learning about someone else’s past than letting them in on mine. The first time I told my story was nerve-wracking to say the least – at a small party at a professor’s house, about four months after my clean scan. I shook and stuttered the entire way through. I felt everyone’s eyes on me as if they were bright, hot lamps. I don’t think I even looked up from my plate.
I shy away from telling people this important fact of my life partially because of how many received the news while I was in treatment. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many people reacted with “Oh, you poor thing!” “You’re so young!” – even from medical professionals who were involved with my treatment! I know most people who react that way mean well, and probably don’t know what else to say, so I should try to give them a little slack, right? But sometimes it feels like damage control when I let people in on my biggest bombshell.
I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, but I also worry what people think of me when they hear the words “I had cancer” come out of my mouth. Do they think I’m weaker now or stronger? Did this make their opinion of me change or are things still the same? (Just some of the perks of being stubborn and insecure at once.)
It does get easier to tell my story as time goes on, but I still struggle from time to time. I’m proud of how far I’ve come since diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean I want to tell everyone I meet via bullhorn. I’m fairly vocal about my experience online, but will not say a peep to most people face-to-face. Maybe I’m more comfortable with that sense of anonymity…along with the fact that I don’t have to actually say “I had cancer” with my mouth. Words have always come more easily to me through writing rather than speaking.
Cancer can be a prickly subject even if you’ve been “out of the woods” for a while. It’s okay to still get nervous a year, five years, or even ten years later. You have the right to tell people on your own terms and in your own time. If you want to go around wearing your newest cancer awareness swag and drive everywhere with a bumper sticker ribbon on your car, go for it. If you’d rather retweet other people’s words about having cancer, that’s great. If you’re somewhere in the middle, that’s fine, too. Do what you’re comfortable doing. If people start to pry where you don’t want them to, you have every right to tell them so. Don’t let anyone push you into giving out more information than you’re comfortable sharing.