After my immune system was trashed by chemotherapy, my doctors warned me I would be susceptible to infection for months. But no one prepared me for how emotionally defenseless I would become. In the aftermath of treatment, I felt exposed to a host of painful comments, emotions, and fears.
When I went back to work, for instance, I told only a few colleagues about my diagnosis. I couldn’t handle being smothered in sympathy every time I walked down the hall. I couldn’t deal with probing questions about my lumpectomy. And I couldn’t withstand the whispered stories about the coworker who had died of breast cancer four years earlier. My skin was too thin to protect against uninvited curiosity and concern.
Cancer leaves us feeling stripped down and vulnerable. Not only have we been subjected to physical indignities, but we have been laid bare by intense emotions—anxiety, uncertainty, fear of death. It’s no wonder we emerge feeling raw and unprotected against the next blow.
Betsey, who got breast cancer in her thirties, explained it this way: “Cancer tore me apart, and I am afraid to sew the tear up. Any minute now I could be ripped open again.”
Many of us try to guard against the next tear. Sometimes it comes from the insensitive things people say. I remember being rattled for days after a friend told me in gory detail about a woman who had a tumor like mine but died a painful death. Comments like that make us think twice about opening up again. One survivor said, “I’m afraid to tell some people I had cervical cancer, because they might ask about sexual partners. They make it out like it is my fault I got sick.”
Some survivors feel unexpectedly shy in social settings. I’ve spoken to a handful of women who moved soon after treatment, and they all struggled to break into their new communities. Their stubbly heads took a toll on their confidence, and residual fatigue left them with little energy for mingling. But it was making conversation that proved hardest. Idle chitchat seemed vaguely insincere, but introducing the whole cancer story was even more awkward—inspiring shock, confusion, or deafening silence. It’s no wonder it took several years for these women to feel at home in their new surroundings.
But it isn’t just the social unease that makes us feel vulnerable. It’s the cold hard fact that our health remains in question. Denny, who got nasal cancer at 28, told me, “I was always so pissed off that a blood test would determine everything.”
Most people in their 20s and 30s don’t have think about the frailty of life, but young survivors can’t escape it. Ethan was a 27-year-old jock until his sarcoma left him with a limp and a cane. “I was very sad for a long time. It was painful having to face mortality,” he told me. “I always felt indestructible. I was always flying down mountains and doing whatever sport I wanted. Always comfortable that nothing was ever going to happen. Then, at 27, I realized that’s not life.” Some survivors see this knowledge as a gift; some see it as a burden. Either way, it adds to our sense of fragility.
But here is the amazing thing: You can be mindful of mortality and still develop a thick skin. You can learn to let the cancer barbs bounce off of you. It just takes time.
I haven’t forgotten that I am lucky to be alive or that I am one bad biopsy away from cancer. But slowly, I have regained my protective layer. I can handle things I couldn’t have endured in the first years out of treatment.
I can read an entire news story about breast cancer research without panicking. I can hear someone say a thoughtless remark about my cancer, and instead of being hurt, I feel sorry they have a limited capacity for empathy. I can even catch a late-night rerun of Sleepless in Seattle without assuming my husband will become a widow and fall in love with someone else.
There are many ways cancer makes us stronger, but we have to accept the extra dose of vulnerability first.