“I don’t think anyone ever gets over anything in life; they merely get used to it.” – Douglas Coupland
In my view, cancer is a two-headed monster. There is the actual disease, the medical condition, to be dealt with as best possible, hopefully to ultimately achieve a NED status. Then there is the other head. I don’t know what to call this head, other than the culture of cancer, which angers and repulses me for the most part. For me this includes everything from the warrior metaphors, the fuzzy-wuzzy, airy-fairy “hope-believe” and tyranny of positive thinking that I do not buy into, and the supposed path a cancer patient is to complete: one of getting treated, taking advantage of the personal growth and enrichment opportunity by learning lessons and accepting cancer as a gift (how do those poor saps who do not get the gift of cancer ever grow to be better people—YES I’M BEING SARCASTIC), and then putting cancer behind once treatment is all done. There is probably more I’m just not thinking of right now.
**Side note: I’ve written about much of the above before, and my feelings and opinions have changed little. See list of related posts at the end.
It is that last notion, the one in which “now that I am done with treatment I am supposed to be over cancer” that is chasing its own tail in my head.
From the day I learned I had cancer, the idea that I’d ever be over cancer just did not make sense. How can one get past cancer? The biggest obstacle to that lofty goal is the constant fear, however sharp and present or dull and distant it is, that cancer will come back—it is always there. Not to mention that I will always have to ‘fess up to having had it, when getting new medical care providers or insurance, or who knows what else; I always have to check that box in medical history. Cancer is my history, and history has everything to do with the present.
I’ve written about the pressure from non-cancer friends and acquaintances to be over cancer, the “aren’t you done yet” question directed at a patient even in the middle of treatment (see list below), because most people cannot understand just how long cancer treatment takes. I may have mentioned in other posts that I’ve seen comments on articles (usually in mainstream outlets, CNN, HuffPo, etc) that say something along the lines of “I had breast cancer and I’m over it now, cancer is behind me, cancer was no big deal”. These comments strike me as disapproving and dismissive. I know I am being judgmental and unfair when I ask: if these people are so over cancer, why are they taking time to read the piece, and taking even more time to comment, often to chastise the author or other commenters for not doing cancer right, or, their way?
I know I am unfairly measuring these folks by my own yardstick. My idea, or ideal, life of being over cancer is the one I had before, in which I did not read, much less comment on, articles, reports, blogs, and books that had anything to do with cancer—treating it, preventing it from coming back, and coping with it. Maybe this is not the ideal life in other patients’ views. But I want back that life in which I did not have scars on my breast and under my arm, in which I did not have little blue dots tattooed all over my torso marking me for radiation, one in which I never lost my hair and it came back kinky and grey in spots, in which my memory is not missing huge pieces of information, in which I do not tire so suddenly and so much faster than someone my age should—need I go on? In short, to be over cancer for me is to return to how I lived before, and that included NOT talking about cancer and having to deal with the everyday fall-out.
I know that I am being childish, that just because the “I put cancer behind me” types of folks have unfairly judged other cancer patients for still “wallowing in cancer”, it does not excuse me from going, “wah-wah, they started it!” and judging them right back. But I just cannot see beyond my own frustration about this right now.
Perhaps my interpretation of the put cancer behind/cancer is in the past concept is way off mark. When I hear or read it, it seems the person saying it is implying that if cancer is behind or in the past, it has no bearing on the present. Like cancer was just part of life’s to-do checklist: go to college, get a career, have kids, get over cancer. But the funny thing is, college, choices made regarding (not) having (how many) kids, and employment, have huge lasting impacts. Why would it not be the same with cancer? Why is the idea to put cancer behind a person, as if over and done with, forgotten almost, or at least be no big deal (really sick of seeing that phrase) so accepted?
The language of cancer is rife with metaphors, causing me to start to hate them lately. But as it is impossible to not use them, I propose a different metaphor than this idea of: I crossed cancer off the to-do list, with the tasks neatly tucked in the past, not touching the present. Maybe life and the events contained within it are more like a French braid. The braid starts out with three locks of hair, crossed one over the other, then a new lock of hair is picked up and woven in with each new criss-cross. Cancer is just another one of those locks of hair. For me the cancer lock is one of the damaged and grey locks that I grew back much to my horror (along with my normal brown hair, my new hair is a real odd mix). An old, bad relationship, and the miserable job I left, those are also frizzy, grey locks. If I just put the cancer and the miserable job behind and ignored them, or to keep my stupid metaphor, ignored the objectionable locks of hair and refused to include them in the braid—what kind of braid would that leave?
Of course I’ll never be over cancer; it is woven into my life. It is acceptable for me to make choices regarding my future employment based on wanting to NOT repeat having a job that took up my life 24/7 and made me miserable; why is not acceptable that I bring my experiences with cancer forward as well? That is not to say all the fall-out from the miserable job and cancer was terrible. As loathe as a Cancer Curmudgeon is to admit it, there was some good fall-out. If I’d not made to choices to take on, stay in, and quit the horrible job, there would be people and opportunities missing in my current life. If cancer had not happened to me, there would be other people missing, and other things missing. Just as the bad and good occurrences make the life, the crappy grey hair and the sort of normal brown hair makes the braid.
Putting cancer behind me, getting over cancer, is just another one of those expected behaviors, those parts of cancer culture, like wearing Pink, or calling myself a warrior, or forcing myself and encouraging others to be positive about cancer, that I refuse to take part in.
Posts that have more thoroughly expressed ideas mentioned above, in no certain order: