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.
Take the Mythical Image of the Strong Warrior Breast Cancer Survivor And Bury HER Once & For All
12 thoughts on “I Can Pretend”
this post really resonated with me, and i appreciate your honesty and insight as to your own reactions when people ask things like you cited. i have for some time had a filmish sort reel that runs though my head, that at times scares the bejesus out of me.
it’s one where i immediately ask, “how much time do you have?”, whilst grabbing them by the arm and finding a place to plop them down, and then i begin to expound on every single detail of my cancer story. they are sitting, i am standing, pacing back and forth, my voice lowering on “big cancer secrets”, then rising to ranting decibels about the stuff (here i may verbalize in a high-pitched, squeaky tone) – that NO ONE EVER TOLD ME WOULD HAPPEN, as i clasp my bald head with both hands, and snot runs out my nose, and saliva slithers out both sides of my mouth (both effects of my friend, Herceptin – not so much awful, but embarrassing and great for dramatic effect as i jab my hands into my pockets for a tissue, which, of course, i don’t happen to have. no matter – i carry on with just a quick swipe to nose and mouth. then i may pause – not to see the effect i am having on my inquisitive captive – but because i simply can’t think where the fuck i was going with this. but, ahhhh, the look of horror on my subject’s face delights me, and gives me a full injection of endorphins – and voila – i’m back! pointedly poking at my head and saying, “SEE, SEE what that goddamned CHEMO does to my BRAIN???”. then i might pull out my calendar, rife with appointments to every mofo test known to man, and describe in full detail the anxiety, the fear, the waiting, the always impending feeling of DOOM, that will possibly render me back at square one. i tug my tee-shirt tight across my chest so they get a good look at the, jagged, huge, long scar they told me would fade “quickly” but now has turned an ugly shade of black and shit brown, and let them see the disparity of nipples facing in opposing positions of northern and southern tendancies, as well as being 2 whole sizes different, as i whip out the padding from the pocket of the one so diminished in size that I’ve thus far been able to keep -adding “but one ever knows for HOW LONG i’ll keep it”.
this could go on and on – for hours, i’m sure, but just seeing it in my head – alas, i must take a NAP. i feel cheated and somewhat deflated that i can never get past the exhausted phase, but i’m trying to figure out a strategy for keeping awake long enough to see how it all plays out – perhaps having it actually filmed, with rests in between takes, i will get it perfected. until i do, i will wonder what the end result will be for my specially selected audience of one, and mostly i will worry that i will have had it up to the proverbial here, and not be able to temper the tempting impulse i have to just begin to say, “come with me…you bring up a ve-r-r-r-y interesting (infuriating and annoying) question, my dear. i say all this for people who are more motivated by gleaning ( casual, dramatic and gossipy) information, than for all those who genuinely care. for the latter, i mostly say, “oh, pretty good – things are moving along”. BLECH.
harrumph- thanks for letting me get this off my…uhm, er, uhm, chest.
love you – KEEP WRITING!
LOL Karen, I should make your comment a whole post!
It would be interesting if there are YouTube pieces of the truths. Getting these truths out there are what motivates me, for sure. Definitely it is why I post pics of my surgery…so tired of the “you get a boob job” mentality–I want the ugly reality, the comprehension of what breast cancer does, out there to replace trite “awareness”.
It would be interesting if a mental health professional (or social critic? or anthropologist?) would explore why people ask the question and are uncomfortable with the answer when it is the truth, not the lie.
Excellent post. So very well put. I begin my “oncology tour of doctors” next month. Four years out & also still terrified of any little ache or pain. I am now a Hypochondriac & THE Master of Psychosomatics. Effin cancer. xx
Ha ha, you’re right! I wonder if anyone has done a study about how people emerging from illness become hypochondriacs. Especially in patients with few risk factors; they’d have a reason to be suspicious of every bump and scratch!
Most people no longer ask me about my cancer because they figure “I am done with it”. I prefer they don’t ask because those times they have asked, they’ve thought I was being negative with my response. I’ve always had issues with people’s reactions about my cancer diagnosis, from the very beginning. I may be overly sensitive about it but that’s me. Expectations have always been an issue for me too. The thing that annoyed me the most was having all these people who I hadn’t spoken to in over 15 years asking personal questions about my illness and then demanding I tell everyone. This might seem weird, but I perceive that as gossip not really as caring. Because if they cared about me, they would have contacted me at least once within those 15 years. So again, having “the wrong attention” during my cancer mess was a big No-No for me. It reminded me of death.
I am called the girl who does “over-kill checkups” among my doctors. Even when I see a new doctor he/she already knows who I am so they must talk among themselves.I feel safer over-checking I guess because I am always worried every symptom I have is cancer.And most recently, I realized I do that to my guy too. When I see a spot on him I freak out (been pushing him to go see a dermatologist over a weird spot on his leg but guys don’t like to see doctors so this adds to my anxiety). I guess this is just who I am, a worrier.
One thing about me is that I don’t suppress my feelings/emotions. I may stay quiet about some situations because it may be a healthier choice for me, but that doesn’t last long. I either explode or walk away completely. With that said, I’ve had issues with friends since my dx because they claimed I’ve changed. some are not comfortable with the “new me” whatever the heck that means.
Oh man I’m not good at suppressing my feelings either. I’ve done it, but it stressed me out. And I’ve done some walking away too. Odd about how friends claimed you’ve changed. I always thought PMS was like this: stuff, even little stuff, pissed me off all the time, it was just during PMS I was more likely to gripe about it (to someone, especially if they were the one causing the gripe). Post cancer is kind of like a permanent state of PMS in this way. I’m griping about stuff that always ticks me off, but now I am less likely to keep quiet–hence what might be seen as a “change”. The difference is perception–people think more things tick me off, when actually it is the same things as usual. Hope that makes sense!
Yes, “I am aware of it every second,”, that says it all.