Cancer Is a Killer, Not a Lifestyle

Does cancer make you uncomfortable? Of course it does!

Disfiguring surgery. Treatments that make patients bald, pale and weak. Teeth falling out or turning brown. Missing fingernails. A large elastic bandage worn on the arm forever. Chronic pain. And on top of all that—for way too many—a death sentence.

Hey, what’s not to like?


Protects against cancer

It’s human nature to try to put aside what makes us uncomfortable. One way to do that is to assign blame.

Won’t happen to me because I did not perform in smoky nightclubs.

Won’t happen to me because I have a four-leaf clover.

Or—worse—won’t happen to me because I am [stage whisper] a good person, unlike him.

People may not even be aware they are having such thoughts, but behavior provides a clue. Cancer patients usually let it go without comment. But their radar is finely tuned, and they feel the rejection.

Twenty years ago Washington Monthly journalist Paul Glastris wrote an essay, The Case for Denial; What the Handicapped Movement Can Learn From a Totally Normal Guy, about the pitfalls of having one arm. He lost the other one at the age of 14 when he touched a live electric wire.

At first he resented the stares, but then in college he took a science class and began to understand that people could not help themselves. Long before Glastris was born, natural selection reinforced the scrutiny of outsiders. If an approaching figure looks different from you, he may be an enemy.

Good for Glastris that he was able to move past his irritation. But he had an advantage: He was young and thriving. Those adjectives do not apply to most cancer survivors.

To anyone who has a friend with cancer, this could be your friend speaking to you:

I did not apply for cancer. I did not major in cancer. I did not come to a fork in the road and choose cancer.

I never wanted it. I still don’t want it. Cancer appalls and terrifies me as much as it does you.

I’m fighting it. My doctors and nurses are fighting it. My family suffers with me. We all hate cancer. We are all living our worst nightmare. We would love to put cancer aside, to find a quick, easy fix. To escape.

Some days I wake up and just cry. Some days I literally don’t know how to proceed—as though I’ve forgotten how to get out of bed, walk forward, open the blinds, say good morning to my family.

Some days I feel like writing a final love letter and buying a one-way ticket to the Netherlands.

I am sorry I can not help you create a ‘positive feedback loop.’

Every now and then I feel selfless and cheerful, and then I make it easy for you to be kind. Please understand that most days I just can’t manage it.

I don’t want to scare you. But I know I do.

And because I’m frightened myself, and exhausted to boot, I don’t have the strength to help you overcome your own natural aversion to this blight on humanity.

So, to hijack JFK’s memorable quote:

Ask not what your friend can do to make you more comfortable with the idea and the reality of cancer. Ask what you can do to alleviate—if only temporarily—the crushing burden your friend carries every day.


About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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5 Responses to Cancer Is a Killer, Not a Lifestyle

  1. Elise Daniel says:

    Thanks, Donna, for saying those things that many of us who live(d) with cancer have felt.

  2. amy says:

    This was great. I remember when my husband was diagnosed, and everyone was treating us like we were in this really cool club. They gave us Inspirational Books, like Walking Through The Storm. I hated it. If it’s storming, I’m not dumb. I don’t want to walk through it, I want to go find shelter. There seems to be this notion that cancer patients are very brave, very noble, very inspirational. Most of the ones I know, when they aren’t too sick, are very ticked off and almost funny in their disgust over the situation.

  3. Thank you Elise. :)

    Amy: Yeah, kind of like a time-share. Let’s pretend it’s the most wonderful thing…so we can sell it!

    All I wanted was for cancer to subtract itself. None of this “something good coming from something bad” stuff! No, let’s throw that baby out with the bath water.

  4. Simon says:

    Hi Donna – I came to your site by Googling ‘Blackbird Fly’ (which I find the lyrics of most moving). I then noticed the link to the piece about cancer – I found it quite different to my own views on cancer, which I was diagnosed back in January this year. Although I have subsequently found out that the cancer is localised and the consultants suggest ‘active surveillance’, I did not and still do not regard cancer as anything more than a part of me, that has gone ‘wrong’, such as when my gall bladder made stones and had to be removed – and if it hadn’t, then I could have been very ill or died of jaundice. I don’t think cancers evil nor sent from somewhere else, it is part of me and my life experience. My best friend died 6 years ago of a brain tumour and I was there at his last breath, he was truly brave and died peacefully – if you asked me would I wish he had not died and that he not had cancer or come to that anyone else – well the answer would be yes. But for myself, all my friends and family knew within days of me finding out and I might go on to develop cancer that is treatable or it might not. I don’t worry, I live life and learn from every new ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experience and am content with beauty of life, all of it.

    • Hi Simon. Thanks for your thoughts.

      One of the best books I read on the subject of cancer was “At the Will of the Body” by Arthur Frank, a Canadian sociologist and professor.

      Frank was no fan of the visualization therapy popular at the time (imagine bombs going off, destroying your tumor, etc). The cancer was part of him, and he didn’t like the idea of WWIII taking place inside his body. He preferred to let his body resolve the problem in whatever way it saw fit. Thus, the title.

      Unlike your friend, I am not brave. But, incredibly, I remain in remission after almost ten years, despite just a 15 percent chance of surviving five. Ovarian is a mean cancer. I have no idea why I’m still here. But I am.

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

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