When You’re an Introvert Who Has Cancer, You’re Thrust Kicking and Screaming Into the Spotlight

IntrovertDear.com introvert cancer spotlight 2

My 32-year-old husband has been fighting cancer for five years. This past year, I joined him with a cancer diagnosis of my own. Very uncool of me, I know. Assuming the roles of both caretaker and patient has been a major challenge to my highly sensitive, introverted nature. It’s weird, but cancer can be a very public disease. And by that I mean a couple of things:

  1. It makes you feel rather like you’re on display.
  2. People want to talk to you. Like, all the time.

Once people find out that you have cancer, there’s a massive influx of phone calls, house calls, text messages, Facebook messages, Instagram messages, cards, letters, and whatever it is you young folks do on Snapchat. Snaps? Wow. It’s a miracle I can operate Blogger.

Also, people will stop you to talk while you’re at Sunday mass. While you’re examining produce at Wegmans. While you’re pumping gas. People want updates. They want to check on you. They want to hug you and high five you and maybe give you an awkward peck on the cheek.

This does not exclude strangers. Not the peck on the cheek thing, thank God. That would be terrifying. But wearing a headscarf in public is tantamount to wearing a sign around your neck that reads in bold letters: YES, I AM SICK. PLEASE COME TALK TO ME.

Cancer Thrusts You Into the Spotlight

Don’t misunderstand what I’m getting at — this constant attention is a beautiful thing, actually. Like a big fuzzy bear hug that holds you close through the dark times ahead. I loved my big fuzzy bear hug. It was so kind and ever so fuzzy. It’s just that sometimes it squeezed me so hard (with love) that it would squish all the energy right out of my little introverted body.

When my husband was newly diagnosed, people piled on the love. It was remarkable. And yet, it was also a challenge for my highly sensitive, private, introverted self. Does that make sense?

As his primary caretaker, I assumed the role of gatekeeper. Whenever things got ugly, I intercepted all incoming phone calls and provided regular updates on his treatment and progress. It was exhausting. And no wonder. I had just given birth to our baby girl, I was working full-time, and I was hopping from one appointment to the next.

At the time, though, I didn’t factor in my introversion as a reason for being so dang wiped out. All I could think was: I’m not doing ENOUGH. When I felt overwhelmed by the constant socializing and running around, I thought: I must be lazy, or inadequate as a caregiver, or ungrateful even. Look at all these lovely people calling me to check in or invite us over for dinner. What is wrong with me? How could I possibly find others’ KINDNESS taxing?? I wasn’t the one with cancer here.

So what gives? Why did my heart keep going into overdrive everytime my phone rang?

The truth is:

I wasn’t ungrateful. I was peopled out.

I wasn’t lazy. I was overstimulated.

I’m not anti-social. I’m an introvert.

‘We Need to Hear From You’

When I received my own cancer diagnosis this year, I was flabbergasted by the sudden onslaught of attention. If that sounds ridiculous, I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the people who just want to shower us with love. I do appreciate them. They’re marvelous. I just found it uncomfortable having my health become such a hot topic of discussion. I felt like my own private affairs had become, well, not so private.

I also found it unnerving how blatantly visible my disease was. Like most introverts, I don’t enjoy drawing attention to myself. I’m the type of person who will go to great lengths to remain invisible in public. But there’s something about being eyebrow-less that turns heads. There’s something about a bald 30-something mom inspecting bananas at the grocery store that drives fellow shoppers to strike up a conversation. People want to express empathy, and that’s terrific.

It’s also my worst nightmare.

One conversation particularly stands out. Shortly after being diagnosed, a well meaning and very dear friend approached me and said, “Please, please let us know what we can do. You need to reach out. Talk to us. Everyone is always offering to help, but we need to hear from you.”

I was taken aback. I get what this person was trying to say. I really do. I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiment, either. Still, it struck me as accusatory and pushy. Like I was being put on trial for being private. For not wanting to shout to the world: “Look at me, I have cancer! My life is so hard! Would greatly appreciate some money and/or food!” I felt like this person was calling me out for being quiet. That does not sit well with me.

You’ll Get Through It

The more I understand what makes me tick as an introvert, the better I’m able to express what I actually need from people who want to help. I also know my limits. I know it’s okay to turn down lunchdates after a grueling week of chemo. This has made life so much easier (surprise, surprise).

Conversely, I’ve also learned that it’s a good thing to push myself a little. Not to the point of exhaustion, of course. But I’ve found that it’s beneficial to let people in. It’s healthy to let people help me.

So if your thoughtful voicemail went unanswered by me recently, I am sorry. I’m always grateful for your concern and your help. I was probably just maxed out after a week of balancing my people-oriented job with several high-stress oncology appointments.

To my fellow introverts: I hope you never find yourself in similar circumstances. However, I do know that many of you will experience times where you’re thrust, kicking and screaming, into the spotlight. Whether it’s because of an illness, or a new job, or just your own extroverted, loud children acting up in the grocery store, life has a way of shining its light on us, no matter how much we protest.

And you know what? You’re going to be okay. You won’t melt. You’ll get through it. You’ll probably be better for it. Just know who you are, remember what you’re about, and live your introverted life accordingly.

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Read this: Introverts Don’t Hate People, They Hate Shallow Socializing  retina_favicon1

Image credit: KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock


  • Rachel says:

    Thank you Liz for writing so eloquently about this subject. I was born with a congenital heart condition and have spent my life having my health talked about by other (albeit well-meaning) people. Every time I’ve had an operation or had hospital tests people want to talk about it and ask me questions. I know this comes from a caring place but as an introvert it can be completely draining to experience and I find myself shutting the curtains and crawling back into bed to get away from it.

    The other thing that I find difficult is when people think they understand exactly what is happening with my condition and how I feel about it but don’t actually stop to ask me what the reality is. I mean, I’m the person who’s actually lived with it my entire life. Being an INFJ I spent years not understanding why other’s didn’t ask me “sensible questions” about my heart condition, but recently I’ve realised that they’re projecting their own concerns and fears about their health onto my situation and often don’t stop to consider that I may feel differently.

    One of the bonuses of being an introvert with a health problem is that when I need space I can just say that I’m not feeling well and need a sleep… and then sit on my own and read for several hours. Heaven!

    • Liz Coleman says:

      Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I am sorry you’ve had to endure so much suffering with your health. There are times after an appointment when I dread having to pick up my daughter from whoever is babysitting her, just because I don’t want to have to explain every detail of how the appointment went. A lot of times, my husband will stay in the car until I get her because he is just too wiped out to discuss his health. We know, of course, people are just being supportive. But it’s tiring.

      As for people who project their own fears onto your situation – YES. I completely, entirely, wholly understand this. I have one relative in particular who does this all the time. This person cannot grasp how my husband and I are processing things, and she makes confrontational assumptions about our emotional well-being constantly. It’s weird. But I know it’s just her own internal struggling with what is a pretty crummy situation.

      And believe me – I have pulled the “cancer card” numerous times to get out of social engagements I’d rather not attend. “Sorry, just had chemo, my bones ache something fierce. We can catch up another time?” Introvert win!