When Old Friends Ask How Things Are With My Family, I Avoid Talking About Our Cancer Experience

Should I mention my daughter’s cancer diagnosis, or keep people blissfully unaware, and say that we’re all doing fine?

One of the wonderful things about social media, especially for people like me whose lifestyle has meant moving all over the place, has been the opportunity to find and connect with old friends with whom I have lost contact.

Many of them have been very involved with my family in its various incarnations as my children have grown from babies to adolescents to adulthood, and invariably the question will come into the conversation:

“So, how are your girls doing?”

And I am never quite sure how to answer that.

The oldest is a teacher, married with a couple of little ones. The youngest is doing a job she loves and is looking forward to doing some more travelling once the world opens up. The one in the middle …

And this is where I get stuck. We are catching up on what might be years of not being in each other’s day-to-day lives and I know we are potentially supposed to stay on the surface and describe things as if we are two-dimensional beings whose existence can be summed up in six words or less. 

Who I am, who my daughter Adrienne is to them, is a snapshot in time when my world was a very different place.I may sound the same.I may look the same except for a few added pounds and some well-earned wrinkles on my face. But my girl and I have changed a lot, because a lot has happened to change us.

Something that I learned as the caregiver for a young woman with breast cancer is that there are some people who are good with the knowing, and there are some people who are not. I wish there were a way to distinguish between the two before I must decide how much to share, how well they will be able to manage hearing that the young girl and young woman they remember as being feisty and full of life, someone with a lust for adventure who had a constant grin on her face, has had her world turned upside down.

I wish I could know how they will react when my answer to their question of how I am doing is to tell them that I have good days and OK days, and some VERY bad days. Do I share that part of my processing the experience was to write it down and share that so other mothers will be able to find someone like them out there when they hear such devastating news? How that has become my passion project? That we continue to experience the life-long effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment on my child’s body and mind, and I live with the worry and helplessness against this disease every single day?

Do I burst their bubble of blissful ignorance?

There are a lot of memes out there about how people will say they’re fine even as the house burns down around them. I feel sometimes when I see people in person, it’s like there is a mask I put on, both to protect myself and to protect them, because if I show them what’s really there, it might not be OK for either of us. My collection of people who were safe with honesty got very small when Adrienne was diagnosed and going through treatment, and it got even smaller when treatment was over and neither she nor I closed the book and winged off to the fairy land that most people think the "no evidence of disease” status means.

I know that it is often said that people will share things on social media that they never would in person, but I’m not sure my truth is one of those things I can or should be that free with. So, for now, I guess catching up will mean my stock response will be that we’re all fine. And if they come back into my life to the point that I think they can manage the reality, I’ll loop them in. But I’ll keep the mask handy just in case, because I can never know ahead of time who will need me to keep wearing it after all.

It really sucks.

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