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Go Ahead, Break the Rules!

Dealing with Social Pleasantries while Coping with Cancer

by Heather Jose, OTR

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As if cancer isn’t tough enough to deal with, right on the heels of a diagnosis comes a plethora of uncomfortable situations with other people. I have been there as well, dealing with a stage IV diagnosis, all the while being shocked at what comes out of the mouths of others.

I quickly learned some tips that made dealing with social situations a whole lot easier. To begin with, I want you to break the rules. The rules of socially acceptable behavior that have long been established in our society can be detrimental to a survivor. I want you to take care of you first. Ready to get started?

SET THE TONE. This is your job as a survivor. Others, especially those closest to you, will follow your lead. I chose to focus on being positive, yet honest, and proactive. I conveyed this early on by writing a letter to my friends and colleagues asking for positive support. It was very well received, and many positive thoughts were returned to me.

FIND YOUR TEAM MEMBERS AND RELY ON THEM. These should be people who are there to support you, not who need support from you. By including only a few people, it was easy for me to relay information without it becoming a job. That way, I could focus on being healthy.

BUILD SOME BARRIERS. First, I set up a few spokespeople to answer questions on my behalf so supporters could be informed and involved. I would also send out an update every few weeks. E-mail and Web sites like are fantastic tools for sending updates and receiving encouragement.

Above all, try to find humor, be it laughing at yourself or others.

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Heather Jose

Then, because I could not deal with all of the activities I did before cancer, I chose to limit my activities. Therefore, I could be in places where people knew what I was going through and I didn’t have to constantly address it.

Finally, recognize the negative people in your life (you know who they are) and avoid them. It’s okay. We are breaking the rules, after all.

BE WILLING TO STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. Most survivors I know have endured a story from someone that starts out with “So and So had cancer … ” and ends with, well, you know how it ends. It’s okay to stop a person and say, “I prefer to only hear stories of survivors right now. I hope you understand.” It feels good to stand up for yourself. This works when dealing with medical professionals as well. Even now, when I encounter a new nurse I will say, “Please don’t read the complete results of my scan; just tell me if there are changes.”

HONESTY HELPS. When someone asks, “How are you?” tell them the truth. I love doing this because it surprises people and leads to a real conversation. However, don’t feel as though you have to share if you’d rather not. Having cancer does not give people the right to ask about all aspects of your personal life. It’s perfectly fine to tell someone you would rather not discuss an issue.

HELP OTHERS HELP YOU. Many awkward conversations come out of the simple fact that people are unsure what to say or do. You can help them by giving specific ways in which they can support you. When I was going through radiation, my husband and I passed around a clipboard at church that read “Driving Miss Heather.” It was easy for others to sign up to help as they were able. It’s also okay to turn down an offer of help. I often had people wanting to carry my daughter for me when I, though bald, was perfectly capable. It felt good to say “No thanks” when I could.

HUMOR IS A GIFT. Above all, try to find humor, be it laughing at yourself or others, or watching a funny show. Humor helps us all feel at ease. I was appalled at the things I found funny sometimes, but the laughter was worth it.

Since we don’t live in a bubble, coping is a must. Using these tips, you can turn difficult social situations into a positive encounter.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Heather Jose is the author of Letters to Sydney: Every Day I am Killing Cancer and a 10-year survivor of stage IV breast cancer. Diagnosed at 26, Heather has devoted the last decade to healing and helping others do the same. Learn more about Heather and follow her blog at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.