Your Mom’s Cancer is Not My Cancer

There are only a million things to say about Telling Knots’ recent Larry Flynt piece, and all the comments, and I may or may not write more about it. But I have to tackle a weird thing first.

One of the defending comments came from a Hustler Club employee, and in her defense of the event (perceived as offensive by many) she states that two female relatives had breast cancer, one of whom died. Kudos to Telling Knots for expressing sorrow right away in response. Not that I am not sorry for the woman’s loss, but my irritation at this disclosure is strong.

This is not the first time I’ve heard/seen this kind of “my (relative) died of breast cancer, and my (other relative) is a x number of years survivor of breast cancer” comment; it isn’t even the first time I’ve heard/seen it used by a person participating in or supporting an offensive type of “ta-ta” event as a reason why the speaker is doing it. What is this phrase supposed to achieve? That because she witnessed breast cancer she has special understanding of what it is like to have it, and all the issues surrounding it? And that this is somehow a rational argument as to why the event should not offend patients, simply because it does not offend patients she knows? Does this claim of having relatives with cancer give her some authority?

But then I think, cool it with the perpetual outrage Curmudgeon, perhaps she is trying to be empathetic, and most people don’t even try to do this. So am I bitching because I think it is the wrong kind of empathy?

It would be absurd to always be annoyed if one person speaks up on behalf of another. I think back to a post I wrote months ago, where I, as someone who chose a lumpectomy, pondered unfair judgment made of women who chose the so-called “unnecessary” mastectomy. I think back to a recent awful IRL incident: “Well he smoked for soooo long,” an acquaintance said of a person dying of lung cancer. “And, what, so he deserves this then?!” I sputtered back angrily. Perhaps I was out of line to speak up; certainly I was, ah, a bit aggressive. I know I cannot speak for lung cancer patients, but it seemed wrong, in that moment, not to point out how awful it is (and always will be) to blame the patient, any patient, or to imply anyone deserves cancer. I remember once hearing an anecdote about an ovarian cancer patient wanting breast cancer patients to speak out for ovarian cancer patients, because there are so many more breast cancer survivors, given that ovarian cancer patients have a lower survival rate (and yes lower incidence rate as well…but that does NOT make the cancer less important—read this). What a horribly practical view on the part of the ovarian cancer patient, and totally understandable. So then I think, yeah, there is a need to speak up for one another, but not always to speak for one another, if that makes any kind of sense.

But on the flip side, none of us experience cancer, or even breast cancer the same way. Sure, many of us have lots in common, and that is how bonds are formed and so on, but there are differences. Heck, there are a great many breast cancer patients who have no qualms with Flynt’s event, or other slogans, events, and organizations I find so extremely offensive. Just because I’m offended, doesn’t make me right, I keep whispering to myself, unsuccessfully, because I can get a little self-righteous on that topic. I cannot speak for them and they damn well can’t speak for me. In fact, I am pretty certain most readers are not going to agree with my irritation here.

For me, “my (relative) had (some kind of) cancer” is going to have to go into my list of things I don’t want to hear as a cancer patient. I just think, if I went around saying I understood all about any kind of cancer because I know a few people with other cancers, it would be utterly ridiculous. As if other cancer patients did not already feel marginalized enough by the Big Pink October machine! Me, with breast cancer, the most well-know, probably the most funded and researched cancer, might as well just use the insulting phrase, “well, some of my best friends are (whatever type of cancer patients)”. As if I had some special insight into the issues or problems people with other diseases face; puhleeze, snort of derision. I can’t speak for people with other kinds of cancer, or other breast cancer patients, hell, I can barely speak for my own self!

Look, all I know is that however unfair I’m being, when I hear someone say “my relative had/has breast cancer”, all I want to say is, “that doesn’t mean you know or understand ME, or all the bullshit baggage I bring to my own personal case of cancer. I don’t have cancer the same way your relatives have it.”

That baggage we all bring to our cases of cancer is a topic for another day. But in the meantime…am I being unfair to those who drag out a faux cancer card, the “my relative has cancer” card for whatever reason?

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

12 thoughts on “Your Mom’s Cancer is Not My Cancer”

  1. Absolutely not! You are spot on. Knowing someone who has or had cancer is nothing at all like actually having had or have it. Nothing! And I, as a breast cancer “survivor” whole- heartedly find myself appalled and insulted by the above mentioned event and all the other pink hell that exists out there. I have always found it mind-boggling how someone finds it okay to offend a large portion of a population and say it is okay just because it raised some money….it isn’t okay.


    1. I think what unsettles me with the employee I mentioned is that OK, maybe her relatives are OK (as women with breast cancer) with topless events, but that doesn’t mean everyone is OK with it, and it is not OK to think so.


  2. Well, to me, it depends on why the person is expressing their “knowing” a person who had breast cancer or who died from it.  If they are saying it so people will feel sorry for them, then no, I don’t feel you are wrong. I hate when people do that as well.  If they are saying it as a way of trying to connect (remember, just because you don’t have the cancer, doesn’t mean you don’t know what it means to have it – ask my husband about my thyroid cancer, sometimes I don’t know who is suffering more… : (   People react in all different ways to cancer – some people think it’s catching, but most people don’t know what to say, so to that I would say, educate them if they’re sounding stupid and clueless, or allow them to have compassion. I would rather have had compassion from the person who saw me after my breast cancer bout rather than the fact that she turned the other way and couldn’t get away fast enough.  And your ovarian cancer person is right: there are other cancers out there that are not being recognized and not getting the funding nor the awareness that would save people’s lives.  If I had not one day noticed a swelling in my neck (that, by the way, was gone 2 days later) and insisted on seeing a doctor that day, I would have just thought it was a swollen lymph node from a virus.  Boy, was I wrong, and I suffer every second of every minute of every hour of every day of my life. But I am alive and I think the word “survivor” also says it all.


    1. Yes, all of what you say is why I’m so conflicted. I cannot possibly know the point of view of any other cancer patients and I could never guess what it is like for my parents, who are in their 60s, watch their only child in her 40s fight cancer, and know that they will die before me is much less certain now. Lots of people are capable of empathy and compassion, and it best to keep those in your life, not the others (I’m thinking of the one that turned away from you).
      Thanks for commenting and reading.


      1. You know, I was thinking last night, while in bed trying to fall asleep, about the pink ribbon for breast cancer….sometimes,that is the only thing women and men with breast cancer can hold onto when they feel they are drowning…..


      2. Indeed, many people need the community of support aligned with a symbol such as a ribbon. However, the cancer experience is not one size fits all. While I felt like drowning during cancer, I also felt the ribbon culture, the “you’re strong” warrior breast cancer woman stereotype that I simply could not fulfill, were part of the reason I felt that way. While many embrace the ribbon, I do not, and make no bones about it, and the various reasons I dislike the ribbon are woven into my posts. I respect that it works for many, and acknowledge that it does not work for all, myself included, and hope that too can be respected.


      3. I like your line “the cancer experience is not one size fits all.” That sums it up – each person experiences it differently. My breast cancer was a blip in my life. My thyroid cancer – I told people before i even had the surgery that I was not going to be brave. And I wasn’t. And that’s OK. I don’t have to listen to what the doctors say or my friends or family say. It is MY experience that they are never going to experience – especially doctors. They may be educated in their “specialty” disease, but unless they have had it or the surgery, DON’T TELL ME HOW TO FEEL or tell me that what i am feeling is nothing. I have a personal issue with doctors and their egos…..


      4. Ha ha, perhaps I should add that surgery experience is also not one size fits all. My surgery was minor compared to others’ I’ve read, but I had a difficult time; I’m just not good at it.
        Yes, I think I may change my banner to something like that phrase. It is an idea that has been coming up as I prepare my next few posts. But, then, so does that fact that so much of us share common ground too. All I can say, and I’ll repeat in the future I’m sure, is that these are my reactions to what happened. I thought I was alone, I found kindred spirits online. If me airing my view askew take on cancer helps others the way I needed help while I was in treatment, then that can be good. A few, but enough, have thanked me for the post “Take the Mythical….”, so I know here in Cancerland, it isn’t just me with these thoughts.


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