My Reality and Your Fairy Tale

I’ve never really had that one post about the dumbass things people say to cancer patients. The one time I started to write such a post, I wound up focusing on a small slice of all those irritating phrases—I focused on the awful, blame-the-patient phrase of “lost the battle to cancer”, and how much I dislike the euphemisms for death.

Books and many essays have been written about the dumbass things said to cancer patients, and I couldn’t really add to the conversation, so I lost my motivation to do so. Now that I’m a couple of years past my final Herceptin infusion, these dumbass things are not said to me, so they are not on my mind as much. And really, I’ve finally accepted the idea that sometimes what is said to cancer patients is really meant to soothe the cancer fears of the person doing the talking, not just the fears of the actual patient.

But I had the bad luck to reflect on one particular dumbass thing today; the phrases that reassure the patient that “everything will be alright,” or “my friend/relative got cancer when she was 35 and lived to be (some big number), and she was fine…never had any more cancer!”

I’ve had a lousy month, or maybe a lousy past two months what with one problem after another. The latest involves finding new insurance, and in turn, I’ve just learned I will need to find a new oncologist because my current one does not participate in any of my new, limited choices. I’ve been scrambling to find out which of my current doctors do what plans (the internet is a failure on this, gotta call each of them to get the nitty gritty details). Long story short, I got into a conversation today with the surgeon who performed my lumpectomy two years ago and asked her for suggestions for other oncologists I might try.

I think she actually thought I was considering just abandoning oncology altogether, just not even bothering to see one anymore, since I’m about three years out from initial diagnosis. She became a bit grave on the phone.  She told me I had a “very aggressive, serious cancer” and, given my younger age and the type of cancer (aggressive, fast growing, HER2+), I need to be in the care of an oncologist “for a long, long time.” That last phrase she said slowly and with great emphasis.

Yeah, I know. I need to see an oncologist twice a year for 2014 & 2015, and then once a year for the five years after that. It is a long time, and I hope I can reach 2021 to see my first calendar year free of oncology appointments. Honestly I’m afraid to let myself look forward to that day, it seems so far away. And I know my cancer was serious. I do not take my cancer lightly, and I’m not going to blow off getting a new oncologist because I feel fine right now, which I don’t anyway. Rather, I tend to suspect every twinge of pain, every change in body shape or function, thinking it means cancer is back. The sense of threat is real and sometimes very near the surface.

I really like my surgeon, maybe a bit more than I like my other doctors, especially because she is frank, no non-sense, and always gives me all the odds, probabilities, and facts sans sugar coating. But today I thought, great, I do not need that reminder now, when I already have bajillion other things sending me into panic mode. I began to talk myself down, to remind myself that just because I read blogs reporting various tales of recurrence, that isn’t necessarily going to be my fate as well. Then I thought back to all the times I heard people with their dumbass things said to cancer patients telling me it will all be ok in the end, because there is always so-and-so who just had a little cancer that one time and lived another 50 years.

There are so many reasons to dislike this little anecdote about the person who lived oh so long after that one little cancer incident. It is so dismissive of the very real fear and very real—sometimes high—possibility that cancer will recur in the person to whom this is said. While I do welcome anecdotes, because the small percentages or small likelihood stats (some of which I fall into) are made up of people, I still tend to consider all the possibilities. And this will sound so snotty, but when I weigh the tale of some random person told by some other random person against the word of my doctor, I take the word of the medical professional—who I give money to, BTW—over the random feel good story.

The words of my surgeon are my stark reality and the reality of many cancer patients, one that sometimes is conveniently ignored by those who wish to believe in the tale of the person who lived 50 or so more years. It isn’t a total fairy tale, but it may as well be for some. For those with Stage 4, whether upon initial diagnosis or recurrence, cancer is the rest of life, and that may be a long, long time, but probably not. For me, with my likelihood of recurrence, cancer is the 10 years from October 2010 until sometime in 2019 or 2020, if I’m lucky, and then who knows how many more years if that likely recurrence happens. Cancer does not claim my every moment right now, although it occupies more moments lately as I grapple with an upcoming 6 month check-up, that is, if I can get my insurance organized and get a new oncologist.  Right now, it is taking up a lot of my long, long time.

So to those who insist on the idea cancer is no big deal, that it will be tiny a blip and I’ll get another 50 years without incident—if you continue to ignore my reality, I’ll continue to ignore your fairy tale.