My cancer “story” is not cute, nor triumphant (arguably, I mean, I AM alive still), and it does not tug any heartstrings. I put story in scare quotes because lately I’ve been so very tired of every single cliché in cancer—even clichés I use, like “tell your story”. I don’t really object to the phrase, I just hear it too much. Anyway, enough of that ramble.
I’m responding to the Dog Day picture posted by Komen, of dogs wearing bras with balloons in them—you know, for “the cause”, for “awareness”. I and so many cancer bloggers I read objected vehemently to the photo. How can those of us objecting to the sexualization of breast cancer combat this?
Well, for years bloggers have been combating this by writing about the other side—the one that includes pictures of ugly scars, stories of failed treatment/surgery, stories of recurrence or metastasis, stories of the lovely side effects of treatment (hemorrhoids + diarrhea, anyone? no? just me?). But the mainstream media (I swear, I’m not Sarah Palin the way I go on about the mainstream media, there is just no other way to phrase it) prefers the pretty boas on women who kicked cancer’s ass. That does not represent me.
But neither do some of the stories that tell the other side.
I “only” had a lumpectomy, luckily because my 5×6 cm tumor was shrunk by chemo (I’ve had an ugly post about breast cancer competition stories in the works for ages, and one day I’ll calm down enough to finish and post). So I have no traumatic surgery photos to post. In fact, the photos on this blog show a masterfully completed surgery with a neat and tidy scar, covered with a tattoo I got in “triumph”. I have no photos of my hairless self, pics of me in chemo. I didn’t want to document or remember any of that. I was photographed when my hair first started coming back for a work event; I felt I could not object to the photo being taken since it was publicity for the event. These days I wish I’d refused, that the photo did not exist.
I mean, I do have my original images of my first mammogram, that show a big white blob in the left breast, with no matching white blob in the right. It could be a cautionary image-story of how a tumor fools a radiologist into believing a woman just has dense breasts. But it isn’t impressive, eye-catching stuff.
I did not have as hard a time with side effects as other patients I’ve met in real life and online. I won’t say I “breezed through” treatment. Indeed, the fight with the nurse practitioner over whether I had shingles or Staph was a pain in the ass. Especially being put on meds I did not need and did not solve the problem, and the tenacity I had to use after chemo and surgery to get a correct diagnosis. But that is a minor speed bump compared to horrible stories I read.
Lots of metastatic stories I read bring up the fear of dying before seeing children grow up, go to college, get married, have grandchildren. I don’t have kids and never wanted them. So my story is not poignant, would not work in one of those ads designed to make people reach for tissues and credit cards. My story has no such tragic element.
Furthermore, I’ve made no grand contribution to society. Other than my parents and a few random relatives and friends, I’ve made no mark on the world. I’m just a smartass more interested in pets than people. My personality and my story will not send the masses to wipe tears and open checkbooks. My story and (lack of) pictures cannot combat and get attention for breast cancer awareness the way images of women doffing bras for the cause, funny dogs in bras, women pulling a warrior pose, and mothers afraid of not seeing their children grow up, can to get the public eye.
Of course, I am doing the thing I hate most: comparing cancers, getting into the cancer Olympics, who has it worse bullshit. I don’t have it bad—I participate in discounting, I “only” had stage 3, I “just” had a few side effects. Again, that comparison, who-has-it-worse, crap is a story for not just one, but two, future painful posts.
So why participate in all the “tell your cancer story” activity? I’ve admitted a few times here on this blog and other social media that at this point, this blog is mostly for self-therapy. And to lend a digital hand to others who have had or currently have cancer, who have similar crotchety views like mine—to let them know they are not alone—the way I felt in that post-treatment depression period. I’ve given up trying to convince those without cancer and those that embrace Pink-rah-rah-fight-like-a-girl stuff around to my way of thinking.
But then I think, perhaps the blandness, the ordinary-ness, of my story is in fact what is so horrific about it. Sure I had some family history—certainly not as much history as others I know of. I was just going along in my life, figuring cancer was a likely eventuality for me, although I expected blood pressure/cholesterol/heart disease issues first—that was the more common family history. Cancer would be my post-retirement issue.
I wonder what the non-cancer general public thinks when they see the trying-to-make-you-cry cancer ads. Do they hug their children, pause in momentary gratitude, and then move on, figuring “it won’t happen to me“? I mean, I sure thought that way. Even now, 5 years later, I’m still vaguely surprised I had cancer—that it happened to me. Shocking getting-cancer-young stories always happened to somebody else.
If I knew of a way to post a picture or to distill my cancer experience into a pithy quip or soundbite that would gather attention, that would combat the clichéd ads and pictures already creeping in before October, I would do it. But, I don’t believe in creating some pink boxing glove inspirational image, I have no tragic pictures or stories. All I have is an ordinary tale: I got cancer when I did not expect it; I elected to get treated; and now, so far so good. No heartstrings can be tugged—and I’m not the type that likes that kind of thing anyway.
Of course, it isn’t really that simple.
Cancer continues to have a profound impact on my life. Some of it is still physical; the tiredness unnatural for one in her 40s, the remnants of brain fog, the pain and tenderness to the point of abhorring touch on the breast that had cancer—and of course that dip where the nipple used to be. Much of the remaining impact is mental and emotional, and altered views—I won’t say cancer lessons. They are lessons, just not socially acceptable lessons—again, blog posts for future days.
I’m just so tired of cancer culture, especially breast cancer culture. And I’ve only loathed it for 5 years; I know there are other bloggers out there who’ve been criticizing this mess far longer—and so much of the culture remains unchanged.
At this point, my cancer experience is not one of inspiration, not one to tug any heartstrings—it just a story of weariness. It is not good copy for ads that get attention and money.