#1354: “Navigating social life after my partner’s recent cancer diagnosis.”

Hey Captain,

My (she/they, 20s) partner (he/him, 20s) was diagnosed with an inoperable, high grade brain cancer a few months ago and the doctors say he’s got about 2ish years left– the bad news is that this is the “good” news… because he’s young and healthy otherwise, they’re estimating 2 years instead of the typical prognosis for this type of cancer, which is 3-8 months (even with treatment).

This has obviously been fucking devastating. We’re doing our best to balance coping with the grief, remaining mildly hopeful for the outside chance that a “promising” clinical trial will turn out to be the cancer discovery of the century, and maintaining some sense of normal-ish day to day life in between his treatments.

Where I am really struggling is navigating social interactions – our close friends and family are aware of the situation and responses have been mixed. As our less close friends and family start to find out, I’m having a hard time knowing how to respond to inappropriate questions. I’m already so so, so tired of having people come at me with bullshit and platitudes, and I know it’s not going away.  Some of my favorites the most fucking annoying ones so far have included gems like:

 “Well my cousins’ brother’s aunt’s sister’s best friend’s roommate who got breast cancer at 27 and beat it, so I know [Partner] is going to be fine” (…. Please do not make me explain to you why not all cancers are the same and that I am going to lose my partner)

 “You know, God does his best work when the odds are against him” (Courtesy of my Catholic mother… My mother 100% aware that I have not been with the church for years.)

“Has he thought about trying Keto? You know all those carbs feed the cancer” (Bruh, do you really think they’d have giant ass radiation treatment centers if it was possible to just out-diet cancer?)

So yeah, this shit turns me into a pressure cooker rage instantaneously, and I know they are all well-meaning but I am so close to losing my shit and taking out my anger on someone who (mostly) doesn’t deserve it the next time it happens.

 Also, this problem is likely to be exacerbated by 2 more things:

1)     We (reverse) eloped last week

We had discussed marriage a few times in a broad sense and were planning to get engaged in another year or so, but we decided to get courthouse married a few days ago for logistical reasons relating to his treatment and, honestly, to give ourselves something to be excited about. We talked to both sets of our parents up front and they were surprisingly supportive, but now we’re essentially hiding it from everyone else (see reverse elopement). We really want to tell our extended group of friends/family that we got married and be openly excited about it! We want to post our elopement photos on social media! But we don’t want to get into a Whole Fucking Thing About His Brain Cancer when they inevitably reach out and want to catch up…

2)     We’re going to the wedding of one of his best friends in the fall

By the time the wedding rolls around my partner will be Bald Bald and using a round the clock wearable device called Optune to slow the cancer growth. He’ll be able to take the electrodes off for the wedding itself, but there’s no hiding the baldness, he really really doesn’t want to be The Cancer Guy at his friend’s wedding, and this will be the first time he sees a good number of his old college acquaintances in several years.

So I guess it really comes down to, would you happen to have any good scripts for telling people we got married without having it devolve into a conversation about Cancer, and fielding the well-intentioned-but-really-frustrating questions about his cancer and the unhelpful stories/suggestions that usually follow (especially at his friend’s wedding)?


– C

Dear C,

Congratulations on marrying your favorite person, and condolences on the gut-punch of the cancer news. 

I’ll start with the easiest stuff: Send paper wedding announcements. You can use one of the many design apps and websites that exist to create one. You can keep the language simple. “Surprise! We got married.” The date. Both your names. A cute photo of the two of you. That’s all you need! Make it about the wedding, not the illness. (Tip: If you create them as postcards you don’t need envelopes and the stamps are cheaper.)

People like getting mail that isn’t bills or junk, and receiving news in the mail gives people time to react in their own way without having to school their faces or respond immediately. 

As for telling people about the cancer, this article from the American Cancer Society seems very useful to me. It frankly discusses the exhaustion of having to explain stuff over and over, the usefulness of finding a cancer support group to commiserate and share strategies, and recommends ways to share information and set boundaries.

In the short term, I suggest deputizing people you’re close to to handle spreading the news. Find someone within each wider social or family group and ask if they’ll tell people and be a buffer against nosy questions. “Aunt Friendly, can you do us a favor? We want the family to know about Spouse’s illness, but neither of us want to field a million ‘how are you’ texts and calls. Can you spread the word and give us some breathing room?” 

The same tactic will work for the wedding you’re attending. Your partner can deploy some combination of the couple getting married, the wedding party, and/or the most gregarious and connected members of that circle to spread the news and make it clear that you’d prefer not to talk about it on the big day. I predict that more than one person will be very, very happy to do this for you. When people want to help, telling them a concrete way that they can actually help is a gift, not a burden.

There’s no way to ensure that absolutely nobody will be weird about it in the moment, so I’d like to add some strategies you can adapt on the fly if you sense it might go that way:

a) Apply gentle peer pressure by thanking people in advance for doing the right thing. “Oh hey, tonight is all about [Married Couple], so thanks for letting me just relax and enjoy the party.” “Oh, you wouldn’t believe how many people become instant oncologists when they hear the news, I appreciate you keeping it light.”  In an effort to not come across as one of THOSE weirdos, people often rise to the occasion and stifle the impulse. Add in a quick subject change where you ask about them and you might skate over the awkward moment entirely. 

b) When someone won’t take the conversational lifeline you’re throwing them, interrupt before they have a chance to really get going and be blunt: Let me stop you there. I know you probably [mean to be reassuring][have a lot of questions], but I don’t really want [a pop quiz about my body][prayers][medical advice][reassuring anecdotes] .” “I know, it’s a lot to take in! I find it exhausting to talk about, so I’m just going to go back to enjoying the party.” 

With regard to medical/”medical” advice and second-guessing treatment plans, longtime reader Helen H. offered this useful script for your partner to use: “Since almost all of my choices have now been taken away, what I need from you is respect and support for whatever I do with the choices and time I have left.” 

 c) Don’t smooth it all over. Having a shitty diagnosis is not something you or your partner are inflicting on other people, nor are you responsible for all of their feelings & behaviors when they learn about it. However hard it may be for someone to hear this news, it can’t possibly be harder than it is for you to deliver it, not to mention experience it. If someone gets out of line, and you get visibly impatient, annoyed, aghast, etc., and they  get feedback that what they’re doing is upsetting you, so be it!. Feedback is useful, and life is literally too short to get sucked into defending your life choices to people who think they are owed deference for their helpful intentions in the absence of any helpful behavior. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to skip directly to “You’ll have to excuse me” and move AWAY. Nobody has ever died because someone was slightly brusque to them at a wedding when they were being a busybody.

In my experience, so much of the Stuff Not To Say when someone is telling you something sad happens because in the moment, the person gets so distracted by their own fear that they temporarily stop being in conversation with You, An Actual Person while they carry on a side conversation with Their Worry. Responses like automatic advice giving, peremptory reassurance, interrogation about timelines and treatments, victim-blaming, repetition of platitudes and random half-remembered medical factoids, quizzing you about eating habits and underlying conditions, etc. are often attempts to reassert control over scary feelings. They want to reassure you, sorta, but they want to reassure themselves (that they’re smarter than whatever it is, that they’ll be safe if they follow all the Rules) more. One reason it hurts so bad is that they stop treating you like a person and start treating you like an object lesson, that is to say, an object. When you manage to get out the words, “The love of my life isn’t ever going to turn 30 and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” and you get back a bunch of boilerplate about prayer or carbs, it’s hard evidence that the other person has stopped listening to you, that maybe they stopped before you even finished your sentence. Here you are, reasonably afraid of a thing that is actually happening to you and that they only now just found out about, and you’re expected to wait around until they’re done negotiating with their own worst instincts. 

Once I recognized this pattern (and how truly ubiquitous it is), it didn’t ever hurt less, but it did help me choose my battles better. Some people can be redirected back to the heart of the matter (“Hey, who are you even talking to right now? Did you hear what I just said?” “Can you just be my mom right now, and tell me you’re sorry, and that you love me?” “I know you want this to Not Be True, do you really think you’re alone in that? But it is true, so if you want to help, what I actually need is ____________.” )

Some people can’t be pulled out of their loops. And sometimes I can’t – I don’t have the energy, or the will, or the investment in the relationship to make it worth the risk. In those moments, realizing, wait, I don’t have to fix this or argue until they understand, this isn’t happening because I broke the news wrong, I can just say “mmhmmm interesting I’ll think about it” and save my breath, because this is probably as good as it gets with this person, has saved me so much time. It sounds like time is extremely precious, just now, and the less you spend around people who routinely exhaust and drain you, the more you’ll have for each other.

May your marriage bring you sweetness and joy. ❤