I used to stubbornly insist cancer did not teach me any lessons or change me, because the only changes the cancer warrior culture assumes happens are of the “after cancer you’re a better person” variety (see here). But now I am changing my mind, and realizing and accepting that cancer did change me, teach me lessons…and they are NOT the happy sappy lessons that society wants learned. No, cancer is teaching me that it is preferable to lie.
Much ink is dedicated to the Dumbass Things People Say to Cancer Patients. Now I’m considering the opposite: Dumbass Things People Want Cancer Patients to Say. I’ve seen a couple of pieces lately that talk about how cancer patients are asked “how’s your cancer?” or some such nonsense, and how lame it is to try to answer, because the person asking only wants to hear that everything is OK. As discussed before, some folks are all in during the first few weeks of diagnosis, then tend to fall away as treatment drags on, like treatment always does. The expectation is the patient should be all done, right away, and people are tired of hearing about the boring cancer. So I see bloggers and hear others admit they just lie, and say they are “OK”, when nothing could be further from the truth.
I experienced this my own stupid self a couple of weeks ago. Typically, if it is someone I only slightly know who is doing the asking, I tend to just say “I’m fine,” or “no tumor today!” The person who asked me recently was someone a bit closer, so I felt more comfortable giving the long form answer. Unfortunately, I happened to be going through the impending check-up dance—you know, blood tests, mammogram, see the ol’ oncologist—all that jazz. So in short, I was nervous, having no idea what kind of news I was about to receive. Perhaps I should’ve just said, “I’ll get back to you next week.”
But no, I rambled on about how this, that, and the other is still a worry and about things like the thrill of being able to stay up to see the late night talk shows without having to take a nap during the primetime shows, how great it feels to not make a choice between the two. Stupid little victories over side effects.
When I finished my ramble about the joys of staying up late without napping, the person who asked about my cancer said, “oh, you’re not as tired as you were during treatment, that’s good, that’s all I wanted to know—you’re better.”
The job I held when diagnosed with cancer required much interaction with the public, in a small town, at large public events, and I did a good bit of standing up and speaking in front of small audiences. My absences and changing appearance (my wigs sucked and I never wore them) were noticed, so I was upfront about my cancer diagnosis right away. It was just easier than dodging it or beating around the bush, or so I thought at the time. I hold a different view now. I wish I had not told anyone really. Oh people would’ve found out; that is just small town grapevine stuff. But folks would’ve been less likely to bring it up to my face. Because now I’d rather not be asked about it by people I don’t remember well when I run into them at the store or wherever.
When people now ask me about my cancer, my true, big-mouth nature just wants to lay it all out there—the constant fear cancer will come back, my paranoia that every strange bump or slow healing scratch screams “cancer”. I worry that the changes in my body that are in reality PROBABLY just the signs of aging and being 41 years old, might be lingering side effects.
But no, more and more these days I feel the necessity of participating in this small aspect of the societal expectation of the warrior/survivor/cancer-ass-kicking myth (I tend to thank the doctors and drugs for my survival; I’m not a warrior). It is just easier to lie and say “I’m fine.” No one wants to hear my whining, my fear, MY REALITY that cancer is always around the corner for me. Because if that is the truth for me, it could be the truth for anyone, and no one wants to think about that.
I think back to the conversation I had with the person mentioned above. The morbid, exasperated side of me wonders if I show up in a month with a recurrence, how will that play out? Will the person who asked me say, when chatting with others, “I saw her not long ago and she was fine, getting back to normal.” Will she sigh, shake her head, and make some comment about the unpredictability of cancer, how it strikes when all seems well, when recovery is within grasp?
That’s just it isn’t it? Some cancer patients know how cancer came out of the blue. And we never think it’s “all fine”, we’re always worried it will come back, no matter how great everything seems to be going. It doesn’t matter how many lies I tell, including the big “I’m fine” lie, I know what can happen, I’m aware of it every single second.