Guest Post: Dealing with a Cancer Diagnosis

May 20, 2009

Hi everyone! My name’s Liz, I live near London, and I’d like to thank Sagan for the opportunity to do a guest blog on her website, which I’ve been a fan of for several months now. This is my first ever blog post – not before time I guess. In our lifetimes 1 in 3 of us will get cancer. Some of you might have done so already, and most of you will know someone who has. This blog is about dealing with the diagnosis. I was told I had breast cancer in 2006, when I was 42. It was a 4cm tumor. After chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, I’ve been in the clear since March 2007, and am keeping my fingers crossed. It’s not exactly a great experience, but there’s a lot you can do to make it easier to cope, and some positive things that come out of it. A lot of people can’t do enough to help, including some who will surprise you! Here’s me with no hair – my photo won’t win any prizes, but it was nothing like as bad as I’d feared:

Liz - Stourhead - 12-11-06[1]

I made a list of practical tips that I’ve sent a couple of friends who were diagnosed recently, covering everything from keeping a sense of proportion to having some sticky tape by the bed when your hair starts to fall out. If anyone would like a copy, please let me know. But there is also a big emotional impact. I was very lucky in having so much love and support from Mike, my husband, and family and friends were also terrific. If you are unlucky enough to get cancer, or someone you know is diagnosed, you might like to think about the following points:
• At the start, telling people you love is really hard. It’s horrible to keep inflicting pain on family and friends. Offering to tell others on the person’s behalf could really be welcome.
• If you’re unsure whether to mention a friend’s diagnosis to him or her, I’d say do. They can make it plain if they don’t want to talk about it, but if you don’t ask how they are, it can be misunderstood.
• There is no such thing as the wrong thing to say. So don’t worry about it and even if you think you’ve just said something crass, it doesn’t matter! The person will understand you don’t know what to say. There is one exception to this, though, which I talk about below. But in any event, big hugs speak volumes!
• Not everyone will react as you expect. You’ll probably hear from some unexpected people as the news gets round, and even get back in touch with lost friends. But some of those close to you may find it very hard to deal with and react in unexpected ways. For me, the hardest part of the whole experience was the way a close family member reacted, and some very painful things from my childhood got stirred up. It’s hard to accept people are doing their best sometimes – and yet they are.
• If you’ve got cancer, your emotions can bounce around a lot. I never felt ‘it’s not fair’ or ‘why me’ because they aren’t meaningful questions for me, but I felt a lot of anger which would sometimes erupt over the most trivial things. You should have heard me on the subject of having to keep my neck covered for a year after radiotherapy! So if a friend with cancer explodes about something petty, don’t take it personally.
• Trying to keep as healthy as possible during treatment helps, both in terms of doing whatever exercise you’re up for during chemo etc, and dealing with the stress of the illness. This is essential for the longer term future. It could put relationships under strain, and I was always conscious of the need to keep engaged with what was going on in Mike’s life, and not to take his support for granted (I was delighted when I got a chance to repay some of his care this spring when he was laid up after surgery!)
• Keep positive. Cancer is increasingly a treatable disease. While some people will be unlucky, for breast cancer 80% of victims survive at least five years, and 64% for at least 20 years. Even if a friend’s diagnosis is terminal, if they live in the UK, USA or Canada they’ll be getting some of the best treatment in the world, in countries where palliative care is taken seriously. I discussed this once with a friend my age who has since died of cancer, and we both agreed we’d far rather deal with having even terminal cancer than with having something like Alzheimer’s.
I said earlier there’s not much you can say that’s wrong. But there is one kind of comment that filled both me and the friend who later died with white-hot nuclear-button-pushing rage. And that’s when people say things like “I’m sure you can beat it. The most important weapon is the mind.” This can be said well-meaningfully but what it implies is that if your cancer becomes terminal, it’s because you’re a wuss. The most important thing is not the mind! Cancer mortality rates have not improved because people have a more positive attitude – it’s the science, d’uh. Yes, it’s important to do all you can to maximize the chances that your treatment will be effective and to minimize the burdens the illness places on others – but beyond that your attitude has no more impact than it would if you broke a bone or had chicken pox.
Finally a tip for action for people who haven’t had a cancer diagnosis – critical illness insurance policies can be wonderful things! I took one out on our mortgage when we last moved house, and to my astonishment, it paid out when I was diagnosed, paying off the mortgage and leaving a large lump sum over (the amount we’d already repaid, index-linked). This enabled me to leave my very stressful job that I’d been feeling trapped in, and find another that suited me far better and in which I can work 4 days a week. This was a huge hidden benefit, for Mike as well as for me! Get out there and check your insurance cover!
Check out Liz’s twitter profile at @lizwicksteed!


  1. Thanks so much for an amazing and ENLIGHTENING POST Liz.
    of all you shared and of all that moved me Im left pondering the I KNOW YOU CAN BEAT IT line.
    I have struggled to know what to say to people post-diagnosis & have, at times, fretted I wasnt upbeat ENOUGH for not saying something like that.
    But I didnt know.
    I dont know.
    What I do know is that I can say, with all confidence, that Ill be there with them no matter what.

    Much love to you, mike and your extended friends and family.


  2. Very good post Liz and thanks for teaching the ropes when it comes to conversation about cancer. I’m a fumbler to find the right words so knowing that I’m trying to offer hope, compassion and wellbeing is not lost when I have that DUH moment.

  3. Beautiful post Liz! Thanks for the tips. My family has Lynch’s syndrome (which means breast, ovarian and uterine cancer is in our genes) so I’ve lost a lot of loved ones over the years. I’m in denial about myself at the moment (haven’t even had the test yet) but I’m sure your tips will come in handy some day. Best of healing to you!!

  4. Thanks, Liz, for this informational post.

    There has been quite a bit of cancer in my family, so I keep waiting for the axe to fall, so to speak.

    As to the comment that many people make regarding “the mind being your most important weapon”, I think what they are trying to say is that a positive attitude helps a great deal. If, as soon as you hear the diagnosis, you decide you are going to die, you probably will! I would think that having a positive attitude and being actively engaged in your fight against this disease will increase your chances of survival. But I will remember in the future not to use that particular expression! The last thing anyone wants to do is piss off someone struggling with a serious illness!

  5. Carla – thanks so much. If that’s what you say, then you can’t go wrong.

    Tom – thanks again. I think if you’re heart’s in whatever you’re saying, it comes across.

    Charlotte – that must be scary. Perhaps getting it out the blue is easier. The very best of luck to you and to your family.

    Bag Lady – The same applies to you – my very best wishes for you. I agree with what you say, though ultimately even an increased chance of survival isn’t necessarily enough. But I was taken aback how strongly I felt when someone said it to me – especially because he was a writer, so saying what he means is his trade. Luckily for him he lives in New Zealand so by the time I saw him 18 months later I’d calmed down a litle!

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I particularly appreciate the pointers on what to say and not to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

  7. Thanks for such a great post and sharing your story. I loved the insight into how the “you can beat this” type comment feels.

  8. I am left speechless after reading this post. Also a bit teary and with a knot in my heart. I guess all a stranger can say is thank you for sharing your story and helping us deal with this devastating desease.

  9. such a great post! even having gone through this with my mom, when it happened to a friend of mine i still didn’t know what the right thing was to say… it’s easy to for others to be “upbeat”, but i agree you need to be careful about wording!

  10. Hil – Glad to be of help 🙂
    Berni – thank you!
    Marta – wow – and I hope ultimately it was upbeat, which was the intention!
    ttfn300 – thank you, and I hope your Mum and your friend were as lucky as I was in their diagnosis and treatments.

    thanks for responding everyone

    all the best


  11. Thank you Liz and Sagan for bringing us this post.

  12. […] to all guest posters (Maggie, Liz, and my dad) for your contributions here at Living Healthy in the Real World! Regular posting will […]

  13. Ask how long it will be before you can go back to work or start regular exercise again. ,

  14. But immediate experiences in themselves, however various and disparate they be, are logically incapable of contradicting each other. ,

  15. Merlin 96 – sorry about the delay. I was off sick throughout the 9 months of my treatment, but that was partly because I’d only started a new job, in a totally different field, 6 days before I was diagnosed. It was a high-pressure one and I couldn’t have worked enough to contribute usefully, given I was starting from scratch anyway, and I would just have gone off sick with stress anyway! If I’d been doing the job I’m doing now, I think I could have worked at least a bit of the time. The treatment was very tiring, cumulatively. Once it was over I did contract case work for two days a week while looking for a new job, and volunteered once a week at a local public garden. Then I got a new job for 3 days a week, and did that for a year before going up to 4 days a week, where I am now. I could have switched to 4 days earlier – the change was delayed by a wider office reorganisation – but it was a knackering experience and after all that time it still took me several months to adjust! But I also found that after 9 months of not working, I was very keen to get back to work and feel like I was making a contribution again, even if part-time.

    I exercised all the way through, in the sense of going for walks whenever I could. Once treatment ended I had to wait for the radiotherapy burns to subside, then after a couple of months I started going to the gym for a short time each week and cycling again. It was very easy to overdo it for at least a year, I’d say. But in the summer I was prompted by Sagan’s good experiences to take up running, and a couple of weeks ago I completed a 10-mile run within my goal time, so I reckon I’m pretty fit again now!

    Hope this is helpful


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