I’ve been trying to put my finger on the word or phrase to describe the accumulation of common, shared knowledge that comes to a cancer patient participating in one or more social media platforms. I hesitate to use “institutional” when it comes to breast cancer, because it implies the normalcy, the rite-of-passage vibe that surrounds breast cancer, and I hate that—I do not want breast cancer to be thought of as “normal”, as just another step in a woman’s life. It should not be a step for anyone. But institutional knowledge seems the best fit.
Yes, that is a reference to the musical genius, who fought a battle with a corporation for artistic control and eventually was able to resume being Prince. And yes, I am revisiting the issue of what to call myself, and the struggle with accepted cancer norms, like the battle language.
The other day a blogger on Tumblr wondered, if not fighters or warriors, what exactly are we? And another wondered how to get a loved one to stop using warrior talk in conversation with her, and I have a similar problem, in that my own mother keeps telling me a positive attitude helps one beat cancer (because she refuses to see the scientific proof otherwise). If that were true, I have a friend who should still be alive, instead of me, the realist who should not have made it, apparently.
Well, shit, I wish I knew the answer to these things. There are so many unknowns in Cancerland, that I wish I could embrace the warrior, ass-kicker talk. But I cannot, leaving me with one more unknown, another hassle to navigate. I do not actively choose to not embrace it. I am simply who I am.
It was easier when I was in treatment; I could dodge the warrior and survivor labels by referring to myself as a cancer patient. But now I am out of treatment. I mean, I still need to identify as a patient when I call the cancer center/oncologist’s office. I say my name and that I am a patient of Dr._________, and what I mean by that is, hey, you have a very thick file with my name on it, filled with my info, so let’s cut to the chase so I can get my appointment changed or my question answered.
So WTF do I do and say now? What do I call myself, and how can I interact with the rest of a world that engages in cancer warrior talk?
I know some of how this language came into use is revealed in Gayle Sulik’s “Pink Ribbon Blues”; she covers various contributions to how this language became acceptable—and for once pink ribbon culture is not the only culprit, yellow bracelets have a hand in it, too, if I remember correctly. I’ll have to re-read it, I know. But knowing the how and the why probably won’t help anyone figure out how to change, or at least challenge, this acceptable language of cancer.
I tend to define myself, not just regarding cancer, in negatives; I don’t want this, I don’t want to do that. Hey, I’m a fan of The Ramones and lots of their songs have titles like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, “I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight”. I seem to approach this conversation in cancer the same way: I DON’T WANNA be called fighter or survivor! I DON’T WANNA run a race while wearing pink! I DON’T WANNA participate in pink ribbon culture.
But then I remember, the band was sometimes positive—“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, “We Want the Airwaves” and “I Wanna Be Sedated”. Well, OK, maybe not positive, but they didn’t just always list stuff they did NOT want—they listed what they wanted as well. There is an online game, and I once found a funny picture, devoted to what The Ramones did or did not want, just because that is what most of their song titles addressed!
So if I’ve got the “don’t wanna” portion covered, what do I want?
Once upon a post, I wrote that I wanted a guide book of sorts for how to do cancer:
I longed for guidance on how to “do cancer”, because I suspected I was doing it wrong…What is offered is “The Idiot’s Guide to Breast Cancer”, when what I needed was “The Asshole’s Guide to Cancer”, with chapters like “You Don’t Have to Wear Heels and a Pink Feather Boa to Infusion to Show Strength” or “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (Treatment Plan)”.
And yes, that final imaginary chapter title is another song reference. I’m going somewhere with the music references.
I’ve said many times, littered in various posts on this blog o’ mine, that not everyone does cancer the same way, nor should that be required. Maybe this blog, with every post I write, I’ve written my own personal not-so-silver-lined playbook on how to do cancer, the one I wanted while in treatment. Clearly, I deal with my cancer and all the surrounding bullshit by looking under rocks, pointing at the ugly worms and bugs underneath, trying to understand the whole truth behind whatever health “news/ads/feel-good-news-filler” is being broadcast in a sanitized manner (“…the hidden side of everything” is part of a tagline of a favorite podcast program of mine). I do not find inspiration and coping mechanisms in the packaged pink message, so I draw it from anywhere and everywhere else.
Granted, because of who I am and my tastes, I tend to draw inspiration from some strange and disparate sources. I think one can tell from most of my blog that I won’t be found listening to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”, that sickening staple of pink marathons (because having cancer is such a party, NOT).
A few posts ago I mentioned a NPR interview with Elmore Leonard, and his story about filmmaking with Quentin Tarantino that gave me a much needed reminder of my ability to know my own cancer better than random people who deem it fit to tell me (or anyone) how to treat cancer. I think I once repeated the infamous Conan O’Brien quote from a commencement address he gave in the wake of his fracas with Jay Leno: “What Nietzsche should have said is, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you watch a lot of Cartoon Network and drink mid-price Chardonnay at 11 in the morning.’” I have much affinity for O’ Brien; his new TBS show began just as I was about to start treatment. Sleepless, I watched his new show and reveled in his new success, and as I look back, I think I may have irrationally and illogically regarded him as a lucky charm: he prevailed, and then, so did I.
But it isn’t just Prince, The Ramones, Beastie Boys, O’Brien, and Tarantino I’m building my playbook from. I absorb and apply any tidbit that works. There are likely hundreds of bits of inspiration I’ve found that simply would not be considered inspirational, or even recognizable, to most folks, but they work for me, so I use the bits. The biggest, of course, is Dave Grohl, ironically, a “survivor” it there ever was one, given his former band mate’s affinity for heroin and guns. In many interviews with him I’ve heard recently he has talked about the power of not knowing the “right way” of doing something, he has touted the DIY ethic that brought alternative musicians, himself included, to great fame in the early 90s.
It is this DIY ethic I’ve applied to my cancer playbook. It isn’t pretty, this book, it is filled with the heavy and sometimes not-so-cheery-fluffy-pink things that I like. The only smiley face in it is the old Nirvana band logo. The book is not yet finished and maybe never will be. I still don’t know what those of us who object to a label of survivor or warrior should call ourselves, although I’m sticking with Cancer Curmudgeon for myself for now, given the accuracy of the name. I still don’t know how to have conversations with others who rattle on about positive attitudes, or who use battle talk. But I am always searching for those answers.
But I do know this: you can borrow a page from my un-pretty book if you need it. And I know you can make your own playbook. No one has to accept the cancer mainstream language and attitudes if they do not fit. It is difficult, but it can be done. The more of us that reject the sanitized and non-inclusive versions of cancer presented in the mainstream (need I remind everyone that pink ribbon culture ignores those with Stage IV, and any other kind of cancer, hence, non-inclusive), the more our voices of dissent will be heard.
Here’s to a new playbook that replaces that damn pink one.