Far from becoming a feisty post-cancer patient, I’ve shrunk. I’ve become more careful about what I say, who I say it to and how I’m perceived. The girl I used to be, who talked about her relationships on TV, wrote and performed true, often embarrassing, stories on stage, disappeared.
One of the reasons for this shrinkage is having to deal with blame-inducing comments.
Over the phone a friend declared , “Our church doesn’t believe in genetic cancers just ways of thinking that get passed down through generations”.
With a well-meaning head cock to the side another cooed “Well, you didn’t like your job”
A yogi declared “Emotional scars of the past turn into sickness and cancer, I’m weeding mine out to stop me from getting ill”
A colleague announced “Must have happened for a reason”
“You are given what you can handle,” from a religious person.
“Stress causes cancer” such a commonly held belief it is almost just a given
Over dinner with friends, “My friend survived cancer and they never complained”.
Upon hearing of my cancer a woman at work had to “clean” her energies.
“You just have to be positive” said all the time, by lots of people.
“Be positive and everything will be ok”.
“It’s all about being positive”.
I used to be a social butterfly. I could be found at an event happily flitting around meeting new people or having 7 hour long conversation with a friend. After cancer I withdrew. I didn’t have the strength to deal with the insidious judging, it was too much to navigate when to just let it go and when to speak up. When someone meant something by it and when they didn’t. When to say something, not for myself, but for the next person who has cancer.
Once I’ve been ‘positived’ in conversation it is very hard to be anything but smiles and gratefulness to be alive. I listen, in detail, to their expression of complicated feelings about break ups, work and finances. I’m only allowed the space to be a happy slice of a person. If I speak up, I risk being seen as ‘negative’ and in my situation, that means I deserve to die.
I’ve become selective in giving out information. Ordinary things like saying ‘I slept in late’ can be scrutinized. Why wasn’t I up at dawn seizing the day like a good cancer survivor living each day as if it’s her last? If I was sleeping a lot it may also my imply I’m lazy, they all know from the ads on TV you have to be a good ‘fighter’. I now keep a lot of information to myself.
Writing about mum and I having a complicated relationship is risky. I’m aware some people will read about it, nod to themselves and think, ‘there’s the reason they both got cancer.’
Exposing I was scared and shaking in part 1 means that if I get cancer again, I’ve given the ammunition to some people to say, well there’s proof she wasn’t positive enough. I know others reading about the nurse will have agreed whole-heartedly with her.
To some degree I understand the magical thinking that goes with these responses. Before I was diagnosed, cancer was something that happened to other people. Sick people. In the irrational part of my brain I imagined they were somehow primed for being sick, as if, like aging, they knew it was coming and/ or they were strong enough to deal with it. I drove by hospitals without a second thought to what was going on inside. On the night of my diagnosis I threw a drinks and positivity party. I knew very little about cancer but I knew I needed to be positive.
It makes sense to think a person with cancer didn’t eat right, think right, live their life right because that helps create an illusion of safety. It is a way of creating separation from someone with cancer then it is easier sympathize, without challenging the healthy person’s ideas about mortality. It also calms their fears to know if they do get cancer, they are armed with the comfort of telling themselves they would change their diet, ‘fight’ and make it through.
Whether it be religion, media, or complementary medicine propagating the belief that cancer is within our control, the implication is that if you get it, you did something wrong. If you get cancer and it starts to take your life you are not fighting hard enough. The saddest part of this is that some people with cancer grew up with the same influences.
This turns blame into shame.
It is hard enough to be sick without having to feel ashamed of it.
Despite it being illogical, I do feel guilt. I blame myself for being diagnosed first and bring cancer in to our lives. I’m terrified it was my fault my mum died. I watched Meet Joe Black ( a film where a man makes a deal with death to extend his life) and had a full break-down thinking that maybe mum had traded her life for mine. In the moment it completely explained why she was so angry towards me towards the end. I feel guilt for getting sick and survivors guilt for still being here.
I have my own internal fleet of positivity thought-police.
An oppressive regime does not just work on the outside, it sets up shop in our heads and squeezes us from the inside too.
Lets change this.
When someone dies of cancer, they did not lose, they did not succumb, they did not give in. They died from a brutal disease shutting down their vital organs.
Isn’t it time we stopped the blame game?