Your Mom’s Cancer is Not My Cancer

There are only a million things to say about Telling Knots’ recent Larry Flynt piece, and all the comments, and I may or may not write more about it. But I have to tackle a weird thing first.

One of the defending comments came from a Hustler Club employee, and in her defense of the event (perceived as offensive by many) she states that two female relatives had breast cancer, one of whom died. Kudos to Telling Knots for expressing sorrow right away in response. Not that I am not sorry for the woman’s loss, but my irritation at this disclosure is strong.

This is not the first time I’ve heard/seen this kind of “my (relative) died of breast cancer, and my (other relative) is a x number of years survivor of breast cancer” comment; it isn’t even the first time I’ve heard/seen it used by a person participating in or supporting an offensive type of “ta-ta” event as a reason why the speaker is doing it. What is this phrase supposed to achieve? That because she witnessed breast cancer she has special understanding of what it is like to have it, and all the issues surrounding it? And that this is somehow a rational argument as to why the event should not offend patients, simply because it does not offend patients she knows? Does this claim of having relatives with cancer give her some authority?

But then I think, cool it with the perpetual outrage Curmudgeon, perhaps she is trying to be empathetic, and most people don’t even try to do this. So am I bitching because I think it is the wrong kind of empathy?

It would be absurd to always be annoyed if one person speaks up on behalf of another. I think back to a post I wrote months ago, where I, as someone who chose a lumpectomy, pondered unfair judgment made of women who chose the so-called “unnecessary” mastectomy. I think back to a recent awful IRL incident: “Well he smoked for soooo long,” an acquaintance said of a person dying of lung cancer. “And, what, so he deserves this then?!” I sputtered back angrily. Perhaps I was out of line to speak up; certainly I was, ah, a bit aggressive. I know I cannot speak for lung cancer patients, but it seemed wrong, in that moment, not to point out how awful it is (and always will be) to blame the patient, any patient, or to imply anyone deserves cancer. I remember once hearing an anecdote about an ovarian cancer patient wanting breast cancer patients to speak out for ovarian cancer patients, because there are so many more breast cancer survivors, given that ovarian cancer patients have a lower survival rate (and yes lower incidence rate as well…but that does NOT make the cancer less important—read this). What a horribly practical view on the part of the ovarian cancer patient, and totally understandable. So then I think, yeah, there is a need to speak up for one another, but not always to speak for one another, if that makes any kind of sense.

But on the flip side, none of us experience cancer, or even breast cancer the same way. Sure, many of us have lots in common, and that is how bonds are formed and so on, but there are differences. Heck, there are a great many breast cancer patients who have no qualms with Flynt’s event, or other slogans, events, and organizations I find so extremely offensive. Just because I’m offended, doesn’t make me right, I keep whispering to myself, unsuccessfully, because I can get a little self-righteous on that topic. I cannot speak for them and they damn well can’t speak for me. In fact, I am pretty certain most readers are not going to agree with my irritation here.

For me, “my (relative) had (some kind of) cancer” is going to have to go into my list of things I don’t want to hear as a cancer patient. I just think, if I went around saying I understood all about any kind of cancer because I know a few people with other cancers, it would be utterly ridiculous. As if other cancer patients did not already feel marginalized enough by the Big Pink October machine! Me, with breast cancer, the most well-know, probably the most funded and researched cancer, might as well just use the insulting phrase, “well, some of my best friends are (whatever type of cancer patients)”. As if I had some special insight into the issues or problems people with other diseases face; puhleeze, snort of derision. I can’t speak for people with other kinds of cancer, or other breast cancer patients, hell, I can barely speak for my own self!

Look, all I know is that however unfair I’m being, when I hear someone say “my relative had/has breast cancer”, all I want to say is, “that doesn’t mean you know or understand ME, or all the bullshit baggage I bring to my own personal case of cancer. I don’t have cancer the same way your relatives have it.”

That baggage we all bring to our cases of cancer is a topic for another day. But in the meantime…am I being unfair to those who drag out a faux cancer card, the “my relative has cancer” card for whatever reason?

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