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Talking to Family and Friends About Skin Cancer

Skin cancer can be tricky to bring up. When we talk about skin cancer, too often it feels like loved ones react with callous responses. Many people mistakenly believe that downplaying the seriousness or danger of it is a way to be helpful.

The good news is that we don’t have to be stuck having the same conversations that get us nowhere. We can share what is true for us, and hopefully, that leads to us receiving the understanding and compassion that we seek.

Asking the community

To learn more about how to start productive conversations about skin cancer, we posed a question in the SkinCancer.net Facebook community, asking: “How did you explain to loved ones that skin cancer is serious?”

Here’s what you said.

Explaining it’s not “just skin cancer”

“Any cancer is serious!”

Start with the basics. Often, people react mindlessly to hearing about skin cancer. They believe that saying it is just skin cancer or only skin cancer is something helpful. We all know this isn’t true. We can inquire, and ask what their intention is when they tell us that skin cancer isn’t serious. Most likely, they will say that they want to comfort us. We can take that opportunity to tell them what words we would find more comforting.

“It is possible that people think that skin cancer is ‘not serious’ because it is ‘on’ the skin. What the same people don’t realize is that while a basal, squamous or melanoma is ‘on’ the skin, there are ‘roots’ that are under the skin that could grow and metastasize. It is not always enough to excise the cancer topically. Depending on the depth and spread, more extreme measures may be taken by medical professionals, such as radiation and chemo. Early detection is the key, with the understanding that some people may be more likely to get skin cancer than others based on family history, sun exposure, moles, etc. Plus, recurrence is always a possibility, even if the cancer is ‘cured.’”

Share your scars

“I find that many friends and family do not take skin cancer seriously, but once I show them my big scar, that changes their minds!”

For better or worse, seeing is believing. If you’re willing, showing someone the physical impact of skin cancer can be an eye-opening moment. Someone may want to believe that skin cancer is “nothing” but seeing the scars and the stitches can remind them that there is pain involved. And where there is physical pain, there is usually emotional pain also—which include the fear of the operation, anxiety toward healing and further fear of recurrence.

“My loved ones see me with stitches, bandages and other visible signs of treatment so often. These are all reminders to put the SPF on.”

Make yourself vulnerable

“I talk about the fear I have that won’t go away even with bi-monthly checks. Five melanomas and so far so good, but there is the fear of the one that might not get caught in time. And skin cancer growths are never 100% cured.”

Getting vulnerable and speaking from the heart is the fastest route to an open, honest conversation where your loved ones will likely connect and empathize with what you are going through. When we speak candidly about our fears and our pain, we are inviting someone to see us at our most vulnerable. How that person responds—whether they choose to step up or not—is a good indicator of how supportive they are capable of being. Remember: Not every friend in life and family member is equally well suited to being supportive. But, by sharing a piece of our story, we will more quickly see who is ready to stand up and love you where you’re at.

“Please don’t underestimate or demean feelings that any type of cancer causes. Getting a skin cancer diagnosis is not a relief. Emotionally, it can be a very painful experience. It gives rise to a lot of thoughts. Even when the treatment—radiation or operations—is over, you will not ever feel unconcerned again.”

We wish to say thank you to everyone who shared on this topic. We hope that this fosters more conversations in the future that are more helpful, comforting and enlightened for all involved.

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