I feel an automatic, deeply empathetic kinship with you if you have cancer of any kind. But my cancer isn’t your cancer. It’s not your aunt’s cancer, or your colleague’s, or Lance Armstrong’s (especially not his). My cancer is unique to me in grade, stage, oncogene and, most importantly, the way my body and mind are dealing with it.
It’s natural for people to want to tell inspiring stories about cancer. And while most of the time I like hearing about how someone’s friend beat her cancer in spite of how much graver it was than mine, I confess that I hate hearing the part about how she beat it AND went into work every single day and never let it slow her down.
Dear God. Who is this person and why does she have to make me look so bad? And why are there so many like her out there, going to work and getting the groceries done and paying the bills on schedule and making homemade gifts for the loot bags at their kids’ birthday party (which I find staggering that they even have the energy to attend let alone coordinate perfectly).
When someone tells me a cancer story in which the protagonist has done amazing things in the face of adversity, I know it’s meant to bolster my spirit. And it is inspiring to hear these stories; the more insurmountable the surmounted obstacle, the safer I feel. But most of the time it does something I call being Lance Armstronged: I end up feeling kind of lame in comparison with this indomitable, energetic cancer superperson. I feel a bit like a cancer couch potato.
Then again… this is my cancer, and my life. And if in the whole surreal, bad-dream unreality of it all I find that I would rather spend my good days hanging out with friends than going to work or reupholstering the furniture or otherwise upholding the flimsy veneer of that old she-can-do-it-all superhuman persona – is that so wrong? When I’m up to doing anything, there are a lot of things I would really like to be doing, and they’re not that demanding or impressive. Lunch, a pedicure, a walk, a low-key dinner party, just hanging out… I believe that enjoying these things can help sustain me through the inevitable low times – whether of the physical or mental variety. This is not unique to me or my cancer, surely.
And while I don’t envy anyone in the position of trying to think of something comforting and inspiring to say to someone who has recently been hit with the cancer stick, I have to say it can be just slightly worse on the other side of the equation. I see the earnestness of the well-intentioned person as they talk of someone’s amazing endurance or praise the triumph of someone’s indefatigable spirit, but all I can think is, If I would rather hide under the duvet with a book or talk on the phone for an hour, does that bump me off the Breast Cancer Poster Girl shortlist?
And worse – worse and darker by far – are the thoughts of, What if I should fail? What if I should try with all my might and never look down and rage, rage against the dying of the light in my own potato-esque way – but not beat it? What does that make me? Surely not a failure?
How can anyone “fail” against cancer? That’s absurd. But with all these tales of “success” and “triumph” buzzing around, you have to admit it sets up a pretty uncomfortable paradigm.
My solution is to not buy into it. When confronted with a Lance Armstronger I smile and say, Thank you, it is really nice to hear stories like that. And then I move on. Because the truth is that I’m happier if I am allowed to just be myself through this time. I’m not converting to Zen Buddhism or going macrobiotic. And I don’t think that by doing the things that make me feel good and happy and whole I’m not “fighting” or persevering in the face of cancer as I would otherwise be if I were to go to work every day or lead a committee on climate change in my spare time. I feel instead that I am living my life well. I’m filling up the times that I feel well with the things that make me feel best, and those are the things make me want to live for a very, very long time.
Maybe that colleague loved her work so much that making it into the office even after a blast of chemo made her feel somehow renewed. Probably Lance Armstrong just really likes his bike rides. Me? Give me my friends and my family for a big Sunday brunch – and if I’m up to it, pass the Chablis. And after that, as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing quite like a nap on the couch to round out the perfect day of being an !@#%-kicking, cancer-fighting superhero.