Please stop trauma dumping on me just because I had cancer. It only reminds me of my own horrific experiences.

·5 min read
Rachel Garlinghouse at a doctor's office with an IV in her hand and a black surgical mask on
Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse
  • I had cancer twice, and I also have type 1 diabetes.

  • When people find out, they often tell me about their medical traumas or those of people they know.

  • I wish they'd stop; it only conjures up bad memories of my own experiences.

"My aunt had cancer, too. She lost her battle," an acquaintance said. I tried to remind myself they were trying to have some sort of trauma-dumping session with me, which may feel good to them. But it made me feel uncomfortable and triggered.

When someone learns that I have both an autoimmune disease — type 1 diabetes — and have had breast cancer twice, I'm met with one of two responses. The first response is empathy and a "How are you?" in a lowered voice. There's kindness mixed with pity and fear; after all, I remind them of their own mortality.

The second response I get is one I call trauma dumping, or at least, the attempt to do so. The person tries to relate to me and my experience by telling me what has gone medically awry with someone they know, usually a close friend or family member. But sometimes it's quite a stretch, and I find myself hearing about their ex-boyfriend's neighbor's stepmother.

I understand the urge to trauma dump, but it's a misguided way to connect with me

Many of us who have been ill — be it something physical like cancer or something mental like depression — are often known as, or reduced to, these conditions. We're hailed as inspirational, broken, or something in between. We are judged, and we are praised. It's an odd position to be in; we find ourselves living in a "damaged" body, always fighting to stay alive.

I think people trauma dump on me not only to try to relate, to share with me that somehow they understand my journey, but also because they have a burning need to share a juicy story. After all, hot celebrity gossip is rarely anything joyful, like the birth of a baby or a wedding. Sure, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's wedding was hot news for a bit, but the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the details about Meghan and Harry holding hands against protocol proved far more intriguing. The most popular headlines are typically about cheating scandals, "unbelievable" physical transformations, and tragedies.

Most people love to devour a desperate, difficult story, but always from a safe distance. My cancer, for example, puts people — especially women around my age — in the position to worry without having to actually experience it themselves. They question if they will also face my same fate. They deflect by telling me about someone else who had cancer.

I also acknowledge that some who open up to me may be going through their own or a loved one's cancer journey, but it doesn't mean I always have the bandwidth to jump into their situation. I'm too overwhelmed by dealing with what's going on in my own life.

I'm not cold-hearted, but people often launch into these stories without asking if I have space to hear what they're about to say, and without being given the opportunity to set boundaries in these situations, I am not at my best and healthiest self. No matter the reason a person dumps their trauma on me, I find it draining.

It just reminds me of my own experiences when I hear these stories

Every time someone says the C-word, I'm transported back to months of chemotherapy infusions, radiation treatments, and surgeries. How can I not be? The best-selling book "The Body Keeps The Score" argues that trauma is stored in our cells, brains, and souls.

We can't just "move on" or "get over" something as traumatic as cancer. Whether we feel like we're thriving or merely surviving, those of us who've had cancer carry the experience with us wherever we go, even if we're declared NED, which stands for "no evidence of disease."

I have worked hard to process what's happened to me and to move forward with "audacious hope," a term I love that was coined by Nightbirde, a musical artist who passed away from cancer this year. I'm in therapy, eat a balanced diet, exercise daily, take my vitamins, meditate, pray, and prioritize sleep. I have maybe three glasses of alcohol a year. I haven't and won't ever smoke. I work my butt off to stay alive.

Just because I've been through cancer twice doesn't mean I should be subject to trauma dumping. I have immense empathy for anyone who is facing a health struggle. However, cancer has stolen enough from me — including my breasts. I can't take on additional trauma.

You may be wondering why I don't just tell trauma dumpers to stop in the moment. I'm working on a way to gracefully tell someone that their story is none of my business.

The thing is, if I'm not given the space or consideration to say I don't want to hear about someone else's trauma, it's on me to interrupt them, which can feel cruel and uncaring, and I don't want to feel that way or make someone else think I am, even if it's actually an act of self-preservation — and one that will preserve my relationship with them in the end.

It's something I need to figure out for the sake of my own healing; after all, my own journey is the one that should matter the most to me.

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