Burden of Gratitude

Long before I got cancer, I worked with a woman really into positive energy, healthy eating, and so on. She and I, along with other co-workers, started reading “Simple Abundance”. One daily task suggested by the book was to make a list of 5 or10 things one is grateful for. I found this very easy—I still do it in a limited way. Not a day goes by that I do not think of at least one thing for which I’m grateful, unconsciously, for half a second. It’s just habit.

Shocking, coming from a self-professed Cancer Curmudgeon, I know. But it IS true, I am able to do those cliché things each day—stop and smell roses, focus and be present for a few moments—all that crap. It just so happens my being in the present moment tends to have loud guitar soundtrack, which I’m sure is not what most would consider a peaceful moment—but hey, it works for me. That is a post for another time. The point is, as much so-called negative energy I send out via this blog (I don’t think I do, I’ve merely been accused of this), I’m much more balanced than I seem.

As I’ve said MANY times in various posts, including my About section, I AM grateful to be alive, for the treatment that stopped my cancer, for having an easier time of it than so many I seem to know, to still be in the 70% that has not yet had a metastatic recurrence. See what I did there? Put a positive spin on a terrible stat; see I can do it too!

I am even begrudgingly grateful for all the Pink cult mess that made the research and development for Herceptin possible. I’m all too AWARE (I hate that word) that having the “popular” cancer, the better funded cancer, improves my survival odds.

And there it is: this is where gratitude begins to feel like a burden.

I’ve had a few lightning bolt moments of being struck by this feeling of gratitude as burden over the past few years since I started this blog. I remember watching Lisa Bonchek Adams, Gayle Sulik, and Dr. Love on Al Jazeera a couple of years ago, and seeing the few tweets popping up along the bottom of the screen about the oversaturation of Pink. A few tweets seemed fed up with the ribbon on everything, but the ones that bothered me were the tweets that spoke of the success of the ribbons (a show discussing them is proof of their effectiveness!). The implied message was, don’t knock the ribbon, it worked because now we are aware and anything that brings more awareness is therefore good. There was also the misguided belief that Pink on everything has solely been responsible for breast cancer patients not having to suffer in silence anymore (see Breast Cancer Action’s history lesson).

I get lightning bolt moments of the burden anytime I scroll through comments on ANY criticism of Pink crap and/or sexy awareness ads. It is inevitable that at least one person will angrily comment about the lack of gratitude the breast cancer patient writer is expressing in the critique. The appearance of such a comment is more predictable than the best weather/economy/whatever forecast. And I’m not even going to go into some of the blog posts and articles that have appeared tsk-tsk-ing those of us who criticize Pink. I guess it is just a backlash to the backlash. Again, there is the message, said directly or implied, that anything that brings awareness is inherently good.

(Gonna pause right here and say awareness is not enough, I don’t want to go into that issue here, many others have, and I said my piece about it in Some Word Problems last year.)

But a really major lightning bolt moment is an article in an Australian publication from about a year ago, that I can no longer access, but I’d made notes to myself on it in an earlier draft of this post. The article was about the competition for funding and attention between the different cancers, and how breast cancer gets the most money BY FAR, although it was not nearly as lethal as other cancers. A woman interviewed worked for a breast cancer charity and recounted a story about an interaction she had with some big executive. He told her point blank that his business partnered with her organization because of the body part. He said something kind of crass, like if his wife got breast cancer it would be really hitting where he lives (sorry, cannot remember exact quote, just remember the “where he lives” part).

How many other partnerships were forged for the same reason? Probably more than I want to know.

Yes, I know I’ve benefited, directly and indirectly, from money funneled into breast cancer organizations because of this mentality. Whether it was an executive motivated by selfishness (I am GRATEFUL I am NOT his wife), or one of the local boobs and brews events, I’ve had the best/latest treatment, and received some useful care packages bought with funds raised by things like this. I repeat I AM GRATEFUL for all of this.

But how do I reconcile my gratitude for my benefits with my disgust with the methods used to buy them?

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, sometimes my blog is just me trying to work through my thoughts and emotions about cancer. I have not been able to work through this. I cannot reconcile my gratitude with disgust. The only way I’m dealing with it right now is by knowing that I am capable of experiencing numerous contrasting feelings at once.

When I started writing this post, I wondered if anyone else found gratitude to be a burden. I mindlessly Googled around one afternoon. I ran into the usual stuff—blogs from the self-help set, a quote or two from a historic figure. I stumbled on a HuffPo piece from a literature lecturer about gratitude being used almost as a weapon of sorts in some Austen novels. This analysis of a couple of novels actually made sense to me, in a VERY loose way. I don’t think the “you complaining breast cancer patients should just be grateful” finger-waggers are exactly viewing us as inferior, lower-class people (such as in the Austen stories, where the poor, unmarried girl has to benefit from the charity of society people to catch a husband and the stability of marriage).

But there IS a whiff of superiority in the attitudes and tones in these comments. Sometimes I get the impression the obligation of gratitude is being wielded like a ruler in the hands of an old timey teacher. And that ruler is being used to thwack the fingers of naughty breast cancer patients daring to challenge the status quo. And I don’t mean just patients who are blogging and writing articles. I mean anyone who has ever dared to grumble quietly among friends and family, and received that rebuke of ” be grateful” in return.

Perhaps it’s all in my mind. It does seem linked to the subtle, indirect blame ALL cancer patients get. Like: “you didn’t eat right/live healthy/think about sunbeams all day, so now you have cancer and you should just be grateful some smart people invented treatments no matter how those treatments were developed and you have no right to complain about anything because at least you are alive for one more day, and that should be good enough for you.” (Not going down the blame road today, either—see my old post Did You?)

The feeling of gratitude should NOT be a burden; that’s not what all the self-help mumbo jumbo is about. Gratitude is supposed to help one on the path to happiness. Well, that’s not happening here for me. What should I do about that? I mean, besides trying to work it out here on this blog?

I still do not really know. But I do know this: I felt increasingly disturbed by the Pink (by that I mean the be a happy warrior rah rah stuff, the sexualization, the pinkwashing, all of it) as I began treatment and hit a zenith right after treatment ended. I felt this disturbance before I ever found others with the same thoughts via social media. Every single day tons of women get this diagnosis. Some of them will go all in to embrace the Pink. But MANY others will have an experience similar to mine.

I don’t want my experience for these future breast cancer patients. Just because it “worked so far” (again, that is debatable, since, you know, there is still all this cancer out here), does NOT mean it will continue to work. Some would say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

But guess what? It is broken. When gratitude makes me feel like shit, something is definitely broken.

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

38 thoughts on “Burden of Gratitude”

  1. I have lost faith in my ” always positive, always grateful ” attitude had when I began treatments 6 years ago. I am grumbling because although I am alive the collateral damage from the harsh, cruel treatments have altered my life. Left me with some irreversible life long side effects that make each day a challenge. I just got report that I have squamous cell carcinoma on my radiated chest. Pink & gratitude = no cure still. #collateral damage #lymphedema #cellulitis #chemobrain #fatigue #skincancer #nueropothy #nonipple to name a few things I am ungrateful for : ( thank you for putting it out there.

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    1. Ugh, you have every right not not feel grateful. That is what burns me up so much. I read an article about sex after cancer and one comment said something like, they )cancer patients) shouldn’t complain, at least they are alive. Funny how the expectation is be grateful for life and never mind the other stuff?
      Yes, I gave up on the positive thing ages ago, see my old post I’m allowed–just enter that title into search bar. That is how I became OK with being a curmudgeon–ha ha, though I still do quite a bit of curmudgeoning, just read any post here. Oh well.
      Thanks for commenting!!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Update: Because I was also ER+, I have been on tamoxifen since Jan 2010. Many side effects, take antidepressant Effexor that helps with most. That is a whopper of a drug in its own right. “But Wait, There’s More” .. Due to estrogen status ( tamoxifen sucking me dry) I developed a skin condition directly related to the estrogen level , an autoimmune called lichen schlerosis. On my vulva. Have to treat it Everyday! Every. Effin . Day. Had to have vulva biopsy to rule out vulvar cancer because lichen sclerosis can sometimes lead to vulvar cancer. Oh yes, I preface all complaints with how grateful I am to be alive. Ha!!!

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      1. I do think that as more of us are vocal about the really horrendous side effects like yours–the gen public do understand why we are not grateful to have cancer (very interesting reactions to a Cure magazine post on thanking cancer). But I continue to be frustrated that criticizing the awareness and fundraising methods is perceived as being ungrateful to all those who created those campaigns.

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    1. Ah thanks darling! I was nervous about this post–been fooling around with it for a year now. Sigh, it is so easy to just gripe about what I dislike about BC culture–which of course I’ve done. But for me the heart of the matter is always more complex–this post is an example of that.
      You are a mighty blogger yourself! Look forward to your next post–but I know you’e got much going on. Whew, you picked a hot time to move in the South!

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  2. What an interesting post! I love when I’m forced to think of my position and here is where I stand now.
    I am so, so grateful for so many things but I am pissed off about more. I am grateful to be alive and that there are medications for breast cancer, surgeries that are far improved from the one my grandmother had to endure (radical mastectomy), that my side effects from treatment are basically tolerable compared to what other have and do experience and that there is a huge amount of funding going toward breast cancer. I am pissed off that breast cancer exists and that I got it, I’m pissed that I got it at such a young age and before I got to complete my family. I’m pissed that I do have lingering side effects from surgery, chemo and radiation and I don’t care if others have it worse sometimes, I felt healthier when I had the cancer!!! But are we allowed to say these things without seeming ungrateful? I try to show my gratitude by participating in a clinical trial and other studies. I truly believe that my time contributes to medical science and will help women in future generations just like past women have done for me. I try to find the positive in every day life. I don’t always succeed but it’s a process. I remain grateful that I was bold enough to check my own breasts and go straight to a doctor when something felt wrong. I’ve endured hell because of it but if I waited just a little longer, I believe my prognosis would be much more grim.
    There is so much for so many of us to be grateful for but to insist on gratitude? I’m not sure I’m down with that. We all have our own story, our own journey (I know many of you hate that word but I’m ok with it). I would never expect someone to feel like me or have my opinions. That just wouldn’t be right.

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  3. I am surrounded by “teachers” who tell me how to be grateful and to take “this” as an opportunity to do life better. Just a few minutes ago I had an argument with a friend who told me that “it is sad to see me like this,” thinking about cancer all the time and sounding negative. She also told me that there are many people who live life to the fullest after cancer and how come I am not one of these people. I can’t be mad at her. She has no idea what it’s like to be in my shoes and so it becomes easier for her to judge. At the same time I feel people have these expectations because deep down that is how they would want to react after cancer, but truth is, you only know how you react to cancer when you do cancer.

    I am tired of these expectations people have of me. I simply ignore comments about “staying positive” and “being grateful.” It’s not like I am ungrateful, but I have the right to complain and feel unhappy about my situation if I want to. I refuse to suppress my emotions.

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    1. I refuse to suppress mine as well. Luckily I don’t get much in the way of the be grateful lecture these days. The upside of hanging out with cats and dogs all day! But I certainly get tired of seeing it in social media-so I know others are sick of it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If anything, your post serves as a (constant!) reminder that there is no “one” way to handle cancer and it’s attendant shittyness.

    As for gratitude, please don’t hate me, but I am. I have an excellent support network, world-class medical professionals, colleagues and friends who never hesitate to pick up my work. And, yes, while it would be nice if my kind of cancer got the same rah-rah attention as breast cancer, I totally get the fatigue.

    Anyway, please keep it up. I always appreciate reading what you write.

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    1. Aww thanks Alan. Of course I wouldn’t hate on anyone for BEING grateful. And thanks for understanding the fatigue. It is a tricky line to walk. I’ve certainly written about the issue of pink bullying other cancers before. I know those with other cancers wish for more attention. I am merely trying to explore this aspect of it.And thanks for linking on your post!

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      1. Avec plesire, as we say… Talking to my wife about your recent post, she totally gets it too. “It’s a color!” she said. “Not a cure!”

        As for garnering attention, I’m doing what I can… 🙂

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  5. Excellent post! Like you, I’m grateful for so, so much in my life including my access to quality health care. I’m also grateful for the advocates from earlier decades whose efforts have given us options in dealing with breast cancer that we might not have had otherwise. But I’m not grateful for any aspect of having had cancer. I’m certainly not grateful for the misinformation that is often tied to pink ribbon marketing now. And nothing can justify the use of “breast cancer awareness” for commercial purposes in a way that is demeaning towards women.

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    1. Thank YOU for comment. I get so tired of the back and forth sometimes. It is very easy to do the “what if (body part) cancer were sexualized like breast cancer” and get a lot of cheers from those of us sick of that, and then the ire of patients with other cancer–a vicious cycle. The reality for me is more complex–and that is what I’ve tried to express here.

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  6. This is so very gendered too. Women are supposed to be grateful and positive all the time. Add in breast cancer and the pressure is enormous.

    Gratitude, happiness, positivity, etc. are all good things when they come from within. But when people start pushing them on women, that’s when I get ragey.

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  7. Of course, genuine, non-coerced gratitude is helpful, but our society is so over-saturated with messages to be grateful and positive that even though these are good things, I immediately react. It’s like pop culture where people mindlessly follow it, hoping it will be that sugar pill that cures all ills. They robotically admonish people to be positive and grateful. I hate it to the point where even the word “grateful” gets my hairs on end, what hair I have left. I used to think it was a great tool, and still do, but now I bristle at the way gratitude and positivity have glossed over the real issues and not allowed people to be real and balanced — as in having a full spectrum of emotions. I think we should start a curmudgeon cult. It might not be popular, but it could be a whole lot of fun.

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    1. Coercion, robotics, you nailed it! These make things that should be “good”, repugnant. Sigh–but I know much of this admonishing has to do with others’ comfort level with unpleasant things, rather than trying to comfort us–that sticks in my craw a bit.
      Ugh, the over-use of seemingly innocuous words and phrases has been a big issue for me lately. I’m having that hair-raised reaction to nearly everything in cancer lately, and yes, I’ve taken some breaks from reading articles and blogs I would normally check out. Ugh, that’s a whole other post for another day! Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. I would totally join that cult! Kind of a sister cult to the Grumblers. And let us not forget that having a clear-eyed perspective on the full spectrum of life and emotions is the surest route to humor. 😉

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  8. I’ve always liked the meme that says something like, I’m not an optimist or a pessimist; I’m a realist. I, too, always automatically find something to be grateful for, usually a small thing, and often a humorous encounter, every day. But I also think the gratitude pushers often wield it like a hammer to get the rest of us to shut up about unpleasant realities. if no one ever questioned the status quo, we would have no progress, no research, no democracy, no balance. You can’t solve problems if you aren’t brave enough or honest enough to identify them. I was horrified recently to come upon a website called ‘Happify.’ Yes, we need to sort ourselves out so we can function sanely, but sanity does not mean repressing so-called ‘negative’ thoughts or feelings. That often leads to the opposite of sanity, as any counseling therapist can tell you. It also assumes that we should rank or value thoughts and feelings, make value judgments about them, which I’ve always thought was a dangerous enterprise. Thanks for writing about this, CC. xoxo, Kathi

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    1. Thanks Kathi. I have to laugh because I spend time with a client who is an engineer–and you know the old joke about the glass half full/empty and the engineer? Something’s wrong with the glass!!
      Yes, my earliest posts on this blog were about questioning the status quo, using anger as the energy to start change. And I was really prickly about the repressing of negative emotions. I’m much less “white hot” about it all these days, which is how I’ve come to write this post–taking over a year to do it! I still have not come to terms with the fact that so many Pink practices I find repugnant are part of the fabric of funding=research=drugs like Herceptin–but I’m in a different place about it than I suspect many are in the blogosphere. I want to confront that.
      Yeah, I’ve seen Happify advertised on my FB feed. What’s that thing about if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention? Ha ha.

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  9. Not sure how I feel about this. I have become annoyed every time I log into facebook and see all these pretty pictures with (often misspelled) quotes preaching about positive attitudes and being grateful. I’m actually sick of them lately.

    Maybe I’m ‘feeling sorry for myself’ because my son recently died of pancreatic cancer before I even reached my 2-year breast “cancerversary.” He was here and then he was gone and I witnessed the most godawful torturous way for a person to die.

    Being grateful and positive is personal in a similar way to the opposite – as how people grieve and mourn – we all have our own definition and feeling and moving through these emotions according to our experiences and pace.

    Sorry for the rant, just got off of facebook and today’s dose of “goody, goody” positivity just made me gag.

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    1. Oh Swoosieque I am so sorry your son died, I was unaware of that. You have every right to feel sorry for yourself.

      Yeah, I know what you mean about the goody goody on FB. Today it is the feel good look at how much this person has done crap getting me down.

      Hmmm, as for combining gratitude with positivity, no that was not what was behind this post. I’ve always maintained–even as I wrote complaint post after complain post, that I am grateful to be alive, for the doctors, etc. For me it is possible to have gratitude without embracing the “be positive” mandate. I guess I’m trying to separate the two! But yeah, it seems like the minute anyone voices a negative thought (like I don’t like all this pink on everything), then it somehow indicates the person is ungrateful. And that immediate assumption is why some of the silliness in cancer is so hard to discuss and banish.

      My arms are hugging you from where I sit. It cannot alleviate your pain, I know, but am hugging you all the same.

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  10. Why the hell should any of you be grateful when you have or had a horrible illness with symptoms long lasting? I don’t have breast or any cancer, but 30 years later I’m not grateful that I lost my mum, aged 44, when I was 17. I believe I’m right in saying that in those days cancer was a lot less talked about. If being supposed to be grateful is “shutting people up”, then how far have we really come in 30 years?

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    1. Well, that’s thing-you ARE right about it being less talked about decades ago. In fact, there seems to be a culture of shouting about one’s cancer from the rooftops. And I think the tide is turning in terms of the expectation of being grateful for all those silly cancer lessons (check out Cure magazine’s FB page, the post on the thanking cancer article). But I’m tired of the idea that to criticize the methods used to raise awareness and funds–the breast cancer is sexy stuff–is the same as being ungrateful to the people who created those campaigns, and for the money earned to develop the drugs I needed. I know I benefited from these campaigns, but that doesn’t mean they cannot improve.

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