Survivor Struggles: Socializing After a Cancer Diagnosis

“That’s wonderful that you just moved here,” she says. “What brought you to Texas?”

I’m certain she is expecting to hear something like “We moved here for a job” or “This is where I grew up.” But we are about to transition this conversation from casual to close more quickly than a typical “meet and greet.”

Oh, boy. Here it goes…

“To be closer to MD Anderson,” I reply. “I’m a recent cancer survivor and we wanted to live closer to my medical team.”

Nicole Popping Out from Behind a Pillar

A variation of this conversation has happened many times since we moved here in September 2019.

I have seen people react with tears in their eyes as they reflect on loved ones that have faced the same diagnosis. Some are hesitant to continue conversation not knowing what to say since it’s not a common topic discussed upon just meeting someone. And then there are times when I come across another survivor and we connect immediately.

My social interactions changed after I was diagnosed with cancer. Whether it was with the community that has walked with me for years during treatment or new friends that I have made post-treatment, social situations can be intimidating and even awkward at times. 

Whether you have never shared your diagnosis with anyone, you have openly disclosed it with family and friends, or if you’ve ever had anxiety about interacting with people after your diagnosis, you aren’t alone.

I wrote down some of my thoughts that continue to help me navigate through social situations that I wanted to share with you. My hope is that if you have felt the same way, maybe one or two of these will encourage you or give you confidence in these settings, too!

  1. Daily planning. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I reached out to friends and family often. But after my diagnosis, my capacity diminished greatly to do this. I realized that I had stopped initiating conversation in survivorship. So in my planner, I have recently started writing down one person’s name each day to reach out to in order to help remind myself to do this again. (This will look different for everyone depending on where you are in your cancer journey. Maybe you could try one of these: reply to a message, talk to a friend on the phone, or plan a social outing.)
  1. Practice patience. According to the distorted timeline in my head, I feel like I should have had social interactions “figured out” since I’m two years post-treatment. But healing isn’t linear and every individual is unique in how they reengage with others after cancer. I need to practice patience. The best part about being patient with myself is that if I miss a day or don’t have the capacity to be social, I can always try again the next day. Every day is an opportunity to start anew! (I hope you will have grace for yourself. You have endured so much and are doing amazing.)
  1. Don’t give up. It’s tempting to isolate myself believing the lie that I am “safe” when I am alone. That it’s better to hide behind my computer to write rather than meeting with others face to face. “Wouldn’t it be easier to be by myself than to be rejected by someone else?” Every negative thought in my head leads me to a place of isolation. That voice does not come from love, but from fear. I am fighting those words each day with reminders from God’s Word that I was created to be in community. He will love me through every fumbling step I make on this journey while working on relationship-building after cancer. (Keep going! It is worth it!)

Wes and Nicole with mouths opened wide and celebrating Nicole's cancer free news

  1. Open up with someone on a “deeper-than-surface” level. Whether it’s a family member, friend, coworker, counselor, or someone in a cancer support group, sharing your heart and feelings are important to help process, cope, and receive encouragement. It can also help in decreasing the risk of depression. We are meant to bear one another’s burdens. I’m currently seeking counseling for the many changes we have experienced in the last few months, myself. (Even if it feels awkward or if you’ve been burned before, I would encourage you to try opening up to someone again. Having someone truly hear you, know you, and speak life into you is incredibly important through your cancer journey.)
  1. Try not to overthink it. In my first survivorship post that I wrote in March 2018, I shared honest feelings that I was experiencing at the time. The first thing that I listed was overthinking social situations. Moving to a new place and meeting a lot of people, I find myself struggling with similar thoughts again. I don’t need to overthink this! My identity is in Christ and not what others say or think about me. Easier said than done, but if I keep saying it, my hope is that it will take root for good! (Let your mind rest today. You are already loved more than you could ever imagine.)
  1. Embrace the “new” me. Here are some recent changes in my life due to cancer: Every vacation now includes “Travel Protection.” I may have to cancel dinner plans due to fatigue. Each week I’m in a doctor’s office or hospital which creates a little less time for social activities. At the end of the day, my life looks different than before. And that’s okay! What a gift to be alive with all my bumps, bruises, and scars. I am still a lover of relationships: I love my old friends and I love making new ones. No matter how big or small that circle is, I am grateful for anyone and everyone willing to journey with the “new” me. (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

So the next time someone asks why I moved here, I am striving to be able to answer with confidence and joy as I share the real me with them! Whether things feel a little awkward or I find myself stumbling through social settings, I am working on feeling secure in my identity, loving deeply, and living well! 

Nicole with 2 thumbs up winking at the camera outside of MD Anderson Cancer Center to celebrate cancer free news.

May God bless you and be near you in every moment of your day!

Sparkle on,
Nicole Body

I really want to communicate that if you feel like an outcast, misunderstood, lonely, or just have a hard time socializing with others after being diagnosed with cancer, that you aren’t alone and there is hope. I say this coming from a place of being right there with you and also experiencing growth in this area. I would love to hear from you on how social situations have been for you, where you need encouragement, or what has been helpful for you! You are seen and loved. And are worthy of being heard. Your story matters.

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