These days it seems that every cause has a special day/week/month during the year, and this week Macmillan Cancer Support have Cancer Talk Week. Don’t we talk enough about cancer I hear you ask? Unfortunately not, would be my reply to that, although in my own case I probably do! Of course we don’t need a special week to talk about cancer, but it means that there is a lot more coordinated work being done, and it is not cancer specific. In previous years I have seen many interesting subjects being talked about prompted by this particular week, and in this blog I would like to talk about some of my recent experiences of talking to people about cancer. All very different settings and very different audiences, and how despite my own personal experience of both cancer and public speaking, it is still a very difficult subject to tackle.
Since cancer entered my own life, back in 2007 I don’t think there has been a day go past when I am not talking about cancer, nowdays more in the public arena than in my hospital, as my disease settles down. My work now takes me into most cancer environments both private and public, and recently I delivered a training session to some key staff members of a health insurance company. This was a smallish group in a relatively relaxed environment and I started my session by asking for a show of hands of how many people had experience of cancer in their lives, and at least half the audience had. We spent two hours discussing many aspect of the effects of cancer in our lives, which must have been difficult for many of the participants. After the session I received several emails from people thanking me for how I had delivered the content and helping them understand more about cancer. One person in particular observed how difficult it must be to communicate regularly about cancer, and how I helped them with their own situation.
Before Christmas I was invited to Stockholm to do a presentation for some of Europe’s finest stem cell transplant clinicians. Here I was talking to people who had incredible cancer knowledge, but wanted to understand more about things from a patient perspective. Obviously I could use cancer jargon and it would be understood, and there would be nothing that I would be talking about that could shock them. However if I’m honest, on recounting my own experiences in at times quite graphic detail, I think I shocked myself!
Two regular fixtures on my speaking calendar are when I am invited to talk to the new intake of interns at Macmillan, which happens twice a year. This is done as part of their induction day, to enable them to understand a little about the impact of living with cancer. It is something I was keen to see introduced, when I was a volunteer there, and has now been included as part of the process which I am thrilled about, as I understand it’s value to those people and the charity. The audience for these events is generally younger, with many graduates who are experiencing a work environment for the first time. I have done these for about three years now, and always receive enthusiastic feedback from the audience, however I am constantly changing the way I deliver that session as I realise that not everyone is as comfortable talking about cancer as I am.
The fact that I have to think long and hard before I deliver every presentation, may help you to understand the difficulties of talking about cancer. Every audience is different, and each presentation is received uniquely. What is good for one audience may not be right for another one. So the same things apply to us in our everyday lives. Is it easier to talk to someone we know well about their illness, or more difficult? Maybe you are talking at the wrong time for them, possibly they have just received some bad news.? For me I often wonder what is going through the mind of my audience as I recount my own experiences. My own way of dealing with my illness was to communicate with everyone and be as open as I possibly could. However I now have many friends who have also had their own cancer experience, and I tend not to talk too much about what is happening for me, as I understand it brings back their own memories.
Cancer Talk Week gives us a great reason to bring out into the open some of the less discussed issues surrounding cancer or maybe some of the real topical things. Possibly it will encourage some people to talk who haven’t felt able to previously? For me it is a refreshing week which is not slanted to any one cancer, or used as a marketing tool, but can help all of us be more comfortable when talking about cancer. As part of this special week I am delighted to have been invited by Macmillan as a guest on their Twitter a/c for two hours on Thursday 29th January between 11am to 1pm. So if there is anything related to my personal experience and the work I do please feel free to get in touch @macmillancancer #CTWchat and I will look forward to hearing from you then.
How do you feel about talking about cancer? As always I would love to hear your views and experiences, which you can share below.
Hi Chris, I truly admire the work you do. Even now, 4 1/2 years after my own cancer surgery in 2010 and supporting other women through womb cancer since 2011, there will still be times when I have to step away to collect my thoughts and feelings. It is humbling when people want to talk to me / ask me about cancer or related issues of any sort – their own or that of a loved one. Then my role is to listen and, if asked, advise as best I can. The hardest thing I’ve had to talk about was the questions that need to be asked when a loved one is told they have terminal cancer. I was approached only four weeks after the death of my father three months ago from metastatic cancer – he had never been diagnosed with primary cancer, nor was it found, and he lived only a short time after being told his condition was terminal. That was a shock to us all. I had to put my own feelings aside and answer someone who trusted me because I had been through a loved one receiving a terminal diagnosis. I have taken part in Cancer Talk Week before and agree that, whilst talk about cancer happens regularly, it needs to be coordinated to be effective. I still can’t believe my father is dead – does anyone talk about cancer of unknown primary origin? I found information on the Macmillan website and steered other family members there who asked how could no-one have known. I guess no-one talks about it until they have to, or maybe I didn’t look or listen until I had to. I have always been open and honest about having had cancer. It was far harder dealing with my father having cancer than dealing with having it myself. Sorry for rambling! Hopefully there is a point in here somewhere. Deb xx
Hi Deb, thx for sharing your incredibly moving personal experience, it very definitely wasn’t a ramble!
I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to engage in a conversation like you describe, so early after the death of your father. The point you make about it being easier to deal with your own cancer is a very valid one. I was also pleased that I didn’t have to sit by helplessly watching a loved one suffer, as I also felt I could cope better with my own issues.
Despite things being much better today, there is still too much left unsaid about cancer, both from professionals and patients. Naturally the subject matter makes it very difficult to engage, but it is something we are going to have to become much better at, as more of us become impacted by cancer in our lives. Hopefully Cancer Talk week will encourage a few more people.
In answer to your question about an unknown primary cancer, your fathers case is the first one I have heard of, but will certainly make some enquiries now. I think you are also correct when you say that we rarely talk about health issues unless we are affected by them, and it is the very reason I do the work I do. Things have certainly come a long way, but there is a lot more that is needed.
Thanks so much for all you do too Deb, your work is invaluable! My best to you and your family, Chris xx
Thank you so much Chris. I’ve only just seen your reply as I forgot to tick to be notified about follow-up comments!Deb xx
Interesting Blog as always Chris. Unfortunately our experience in New Addington is that people don’t want to talk about it but we will battle on in the hope of a breakthrough. Talking is so important for all aspects of life and Cancer is no exception. A problem shared is a problem halved is so true.
Thx for your comments Ken and I’m sorry to hear the issue you are having in New Addington. Having said that it is far from unique which is one of the reasons for Cancer Talk Week. As you rightly point out, talking is so important in all aspects of our life. Maybe it’s time for u to buy me coffee? It would be great to catch up and hear about all of the BKC work.
As always Chris you hit the nail on the head.!! I have been for CT scan this morning for my kidney which I now have to have once a year to make sure it is thriving. The kidney I mean!! I met with a complete stranger while we waited for our turn, He had had bowel cancer 8 years ago, and told four years later he was clear, then not long afterwards informed He had lung cancer. This was the first time He told me He had spoken to anyone other than the people treating Him about Him having cancer, He lives on His own likes his own company, goes on holiday on own, He has friends but not one of them know He has cancer. He does not want the burden of people asking ‘how are you’ I was so glad that I was able to spend some time with Him to talk. As you say Chris some people are unable to talk about ‘their problem’ This gentleman said He was not lonely. I just hope He left the hospital feeling that perhaps in the future He is able to talk to His friends. But each to their own, myself I can not stop telling people there is some wonderful help out there we do not have to suffer on own own. You are so right Ken Sherwood talking is so important. Thank you as always Chris for your blogs they are so very helpful, just don’t overdo it. We all need you to be well for further blogsxx
Hi Georgine, and I hope all is good with you! Yes of course it is everyone to their own, but I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t feel better after talking about their issues, even if it took a little persuading for them to do so. My experience is that many people don’t like to talk to others as they feel that they are being a burden to them. That is the benefits of blogs and FB etc so that people can give /receive support at the level they feel comfortable. As we are all aware, isolation is one of the biggest problems we face, so great that there are many people like you around Georgine! My best to you both and thanks as always for sharing your experience xx