Why People Get Weird When You Have Cancer

How to deal with bizarre reactions to your diagnosis—from co-workers who overreact to loved ones who keep their distance.

Jen Singer
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After spending nearly a month in the hospital undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, I was heading to an ice cream parlor at the Jersey shore for some coffee chip ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. Finally, something upbeat and fun!

Then I checked my voicemail. An old friend who heard I had cancer had left a maudlin message. She mourned my diagnosis with long, sad sighs and a tone best reserved for condolences at a wake. I never called her back. I couldn't face the chore of cheering her up.

Cancer sure can elicit some bizarre behavior from friends, family and co-workers. Here, three common reactions to a cancer diagnosis—and the best ways to respond:

The reaction: "Who's next?!"
Jody Shoger, 57, a 14-year breast cancer survivor from The Woodlands, TX, recalls the drama created by a co-worker who wailed, "Oh my God! Who's next?" after hearing of her diagnosis. "That was the moment I realized how hard [my cancer was] on other people," says Jody. Turns out, her co-worker was terrified by the statistic that one in eight women will get breast cancer. Of course, that's over a lifetime.

"Any life-threatening illness can bring long-buried issues to the surface," says Marjorie Gallece, a breast cancer survivor and patient navigator at the Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas. "If a person has a fear of death, the friend or loved one with cancer can become a constant reminder of that fear."

How to handle it: "Not everyone understands that cancer is something from which a person can recover," says Marjorie. "Distance yourself, if you can, from the person who can't see you as separate from your illness."

The reaction: "Suck it up."
Stef Woods, 38, a breast cancer survivor in Washington, DC, thought her close circle of friends would be supportive after her diagnosis. But one of her friends told others that Stef was exaggerating her circumstances since her cancer was "only" Stage 1.

How to handle it: Stef, whose treatments included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, cut the unsupportive friend out of her life. If you want to hang on to the friendship, say something like, "It may not be your intent, but I find [what you're doing] hurtful," says Faina Sechzer, a cancer survivor and life coach in Princeton, NJ. If you don't like the person's response, consider saying something like, "I need to focus on getting well. Let's talk after my treatment ends."

The reaction: Silence.
Your cancer scares the bejesus out of loved ones, so they vanish. Family members and friends stopped calling and visiting Joe Lapides, 55, a six-year squamous cell carcinoma survivor, while he endured three surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation.

Some people fear the emotional pain of losing a loved one, so they keep their distance, says Stewart Fleishman, PhD, a psychiatrist in New York City.

How to handle it: Reassure loved ones that you're still you. "If you're the kind of person who makes jokes to ease tension, do that," advises Fleishman.

Joe found comfort in a support group. "I made new friends who understood my concerns," he says.

March 2014

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