Take Away This Ball and Chain

This is a sequel of sorts to a post I wrote this summer, Burden of Gratitude. I’d struggled for over a year to write that post. I still wrestle with my feelings of tainted gratitude. I still get a knot in my middle when I see/hear critics of the sexualization, commercialization, and etc. of breast cancer told they should just be thankful for the achievements of the ribbon, especially the just being alive part.

In that previous post I noted that gratitude is used almost like a paddle to smack the hands and mouths of these “naughty and ungrateful” critics. I still think this is the case, only more so. I’m not sure I stressed that point enough in that previous post. While I view gratitude as an internal burden for myself, I also think it is becoming a huge obstacle in moving forward in breast cancer culture, and yes, even funding/research/cure/prevention.

I’ve complained VERY often on this blog about how cancer culture seems to be stuck in a rut, stuck in TV re-runs. Watching this latest episode of Pinktober this year, the business-as-usual races, beer-and-boobs parties, and pink shopping bonanzas, I’m more convinced than ever of the existence of this rut cancer is in. Each issue acts like a ball and chain, shackling breast cancer culture to the same old song and dance, preventing forward motion.


Side note: I get really sick of metaphors in cancer language, but it seems we cannot talk about cancer without them, so I am giving in. So, yep, I’m gonna call anything preventing progress in cancer a ball and chain.

There are many ball and chain combos I could criticize—the never-ending debate about mammograms, the argument that fussing about sexualization is a waste of time—but I think gratitude is the biggest ball and chain.

Why do I say this? Simple. Because when ANYONE—whether they be the head of a major cancer organization, or a mere Facebook commenter—uses the “be grateful for all that pink has done for you” argument to anyone asking for more and better, they are looking back, not forward.

Hey, I said it was simple.

I realize how oddly timed this is. With the holidays and end of year around the corner, most people will be writing about all they are thankful for, and here comes the cranky ol’ Cancer Curmudgeon, saying stuff like “gratitude is bad”.

Of course, I do not mean all gratitude is bad—I’ve made it very clear (seriously, read that previous post) that I am grateful that I am still alive, that angry women decades ago became vocal about breast cancer and the disease got attention, then funding, then treatments. In fact, let’s think more about those women of the past. I am sure that women who “complained” about going under for surgery and waking up with a disfiguring, extreme mastectomy were told “you should just be grateful you’re still alive”, too. Just like those of us “complaining” now.

I’m glad they didn’t just sit quietly with deferential gratitude. Because of their actions, I was able to have chemo first to avoid a disfiguring surgery, to only get a lumpectomy.

You see, I am looking back, considering all that has been done in the history of breast cancer. Why do so many people think only the pink ribbon parades ever did anything for cancer? And why do people assume it was easy to put a pink ribbon parade (or whatever event) on in the first place? Do they really think it was always easy? It ALWAYS takes agitators—yes, complainers—to move things forward.

If I see one more comment on any article or on Facebook tsk-tsking those of us asking questions, raising objections, asking for more, I will scream. It baffles me that whenever anyone criticizes something they are automatically labeled ungrateful and negative. It is possible to be grateful AND critical/analytical AND angry all at once. I am again reminded of a scene in the Harry Potter series, in which Ron thinks a girl with conflicting emotions will explode from it all. Hermione points out that he must have the emotional range of a teaspoon. I cannot help but think anyone resorting to the “haters gonna hate (oh that phrase MUST stop)/you should be grateful/you’re negative” hand-smacking comments, also has a limited emotional range. Being human is complex and involves having conflicting feelings at times. Grow up.

As the saying goes, some people prefer bathing in compliments and being ruined by that practice, rather than listening to criticisms and ascertaining if there is a legitimate need for improvement. Of course there is always room for improvement. Why does anyone ever think things are perfect just the way they are?

It is fine to look back on accomplishments, to acknowledge achievement. But at the same time, one must ask, what else is to be done, what improvements can be made, how much more is there to go? Otherwise, one is just resting on laurels, and I think that is happening in many areas of cancer culture. Yes, lessons can be learned from past examples, but don’t ever think the job is done.

I implore everyone to remove the shackles of gratitude. Gratitude is good in small doses, but don’t let it lull us into a sense of thinking all problems are solved. If the old methods (races, ribbons, and the like) have taken us as far as they can, time for something new. No, I don’t know what “new” is. But I do know when something is at an end.

“While I’m singin’ to myself
There’s got to be another way

Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
Well I’m lonely and I’m tired
And I can’t take any more pain
Take away, take away
Never to return again
Take away, take away
Take away
Take away this ball and chain”

“Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion

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.

9 thoughts on “Take Away This Ball and Chain”

  1. This is such a good post and I know you’ve said before that you don’t have the social media reach of others but boy is this one worth reading and sharing so I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an important message you’re sharing here. I agree that too much gratitude can distract us from focusing on the real issues. Most people I know don’t want to hear what I have to say about the negatives in cancerland and I am often told to focus on the “positives” and not to be negative. I can’t stand it! That doesn’t stop me though. I think this is one reason why some of my relationships have changed. I am grateful for a lot of things, but like you mentioned, there’s still a lot to get done. It is important to talk about it. It does feel like we are stuck and a lot of it has to do with the cancer culture.


    1. Oh for sure we are stuck. I kind of think that the “be grateful” is just another one of those knee jerk things people say because they have no idea how to talk about cancer, or death.
      We get bombarded with messages of be positive and be grateful, and I’m not sure people are stopping to think about the impact. I’ve been so busy trying to make people understand I can be grateful and critical at the same time, it only just occurred to me that the gratitude habit might be a bigger obstacle than we thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is really such a profound message, that difference between looking back and looking forward. It seems to be easier for some people not to question anything, to deny and ‘be grateful.’ It takes a lot of genuine awareness to see what is wrong, to point out issues that have yet to be fixed. Nothing gets better if we accept the status quo. I can’t help thinking that if scientists accepted the status quo, we’d have no research. That’s just one example of many. I’m glad I’m a complainer. It means I’m not standing still. Great post. xoxo, Kathi

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kathi. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about complacency. “Just be grateful” is definitely a part of that. So is my own burnt-out-ness with all the crap that goes on CancerLand too. I mean I still complain, I’ll never just sit back in “gratitude”, but, my own “over it” or “I don’t let that upset me anymore” attitudes–while good for my blood pressure I suppose–may make me complacent. Just pondering stuff today.
      Anyway, thanks for liking this post–not sure I got my meaning across too well with it.


      1. Yes, complacency is a good word for it. All these notions are hard to talk about, because of the fine distinctions you pointed out, and the context in which certain feelings take place. Kudos to you for being thoughtful and perceptive.


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