One thing that continually irks me in Cancerland is the expectation that cancer patients are supposed to emerge from treatment a better person—healthier, better attitude, new respect for life, yada, yada. This issue pops up every now and again. I get mad, start a post, lose interest, trash post. But it has started to pop up with a monthly regularity now in a newsletter from a local breast cancer support organization, because they’ve started some kind of cooking class series with a name that implies cancer turns patients into new and improved versions of themselves, and that involves learning to cook healthier, you know, because clearly everyone who has cancer was living on fast food and soda before. (Yes, being sarcastic. Again.)
Several weeks ago, Nancy’s Point posted this great piece, After A Cancer Diagnosis, You’re A Better Person, Right?, and there was a lovely discussion that ensued. I was so happy to read it, and kind of thought this issue out of my system. Nancy talks about the cancer as a gift concept and how she is uncomfortable with that. She also mentions how this is yet another expectation of the cancer patient—to “do” cancer right, as if cancer patients did not have enough to do.
But what else bothering me about this “better person” idea is that it gets too close to the blame game—as in, if I’m choosing to “do everything right” now that I’ve had cancer, does that mean I did something or maybe everything wrong before and therefore caused my cancer?
I was not perfect before cancer, and I’m sure as hell not perfect now. In some ways cancer has made me worse. I am much less patient and tolerant. And now I have a cancer-focused blog in which I write and share my rants with anyone who’ll read them. I’m sure there are many that would count that as NOT an improvement. Yet, I couldn’t, wouldn’t, have done this without cancer. (Hint: I like my blog and think it’s a good thing.) I documented in my post Punk Rock (Breast) Cancer that I once thought cancer was magic, that I would get this new, wonderful outlook on life and I’d handle things better. I learned that is not true real quick. Cancer just makes a person more who they really are—good, bad, ugly, and/or unable to behave in an appropriate manner while having cancer, or after it.
I often wonder if folks who throw themselves into this “new me” idea and action plan blame themselves for getting cancer in the first place, and hope they are not devastated if cancer returns. I’ve said too many times on this blog that cancer’s motto is “shit happens”, because sometimes illness is out of an individual human’s control.
I recently came into contact with a woman who had just finished treatment and was near tears as she talked about how she was improving her diet and exercise regime to do anything to prevent recurrence. I wondered if thinks she caused her cancer in the first place, since she is doing all these different things now. It was not my place to ask her, and I did not.
You see, I recognize myself in her. Oh, I talk a good game here in my various blog posts about how I refuse to blame myself for my cancer. But I’ve also admitted that I eat tomatoes now because of their cancer-fighting properties. Because in the center of me that is filled with self-doubt, I still somehow believe it was that hatred of tomatoes that put me in that damn infusion chair in 2010-11.
While I cannot judge how any other person “does” cancer, I sometimes think I must seem rather stubborn, or stupid, or both, in comparison to the “change my life” patients, for accepting that maybe I could not have stopped cancer from happening to me.
I’ve covered the diet-exercise angle quite a bit in terms of blame, prevention, and moving forward. And I suspect those things aren’t even the half of it. I’m too afraid to deal with the karma/philosophical aspect; as in if you shoplifted at age 5, is that why you have cancer now? (No, I did not shoplift, but I’ve done other bad things, who has not, unless you are some deity?) That is a whole other post, and I’ll get there someday. But I do know this, whatever bad things I’ve done, I’d already learned lessons from those things and improved (in MY way) because of them. I did not need the added punishment of cancer to motivate me to improve myself. It is sad to think that it takes something as dire as cancer to inspire self-improvement. I reject that notion completely.