I’ve been carrying Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals around in my bag for months. There’s so much to admire in her book: her call to women not to be silenced, her refusal to go back to ‘normal’ and wear a prosthetic to please men or make the nurses in the oncologist office more comfortable. She asks:
What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day, until you attempt to make them your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence?
Then I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s piece on having advanced breast cancer:
Everyone else can hate cancer. I don’t. Everyone else can be afraid of cancer. I am not. It is part of me. It is my companion. I live with it. It’s inside of me. I have an intimacy with cancer that runs deep.
You may have a strong opinion after reading this. Think about how that strong opinion comes through your own lens about how you think you would handle breast cancer/how you have handled breast cancer.
We all respond to cancer differently. Our response depends on our own values, how we have responded to crises in the past and our toolbox of resiliency. Cancer is terribly personal, so our response is personal too. In my exceedingly vulnerable state of being a cancer patient, I only became more myself. I was not a best case scenario.
This comes to the thesis of this essay: because we are all different, we all do cancer differently.
When I first got diagnosed with breast cancer, I spoke to many women who had a cancer experience. Each of them told me different things: put your head down and get through it, f*ck that sh*t, be strong, endure so you can get back to your life, here’s your chance to go vegan, etc. Each had formed their own cancer philosophy which had evolved over time.
The only thing many of them had in common was the further away the woman was from her cancer experience, the more she wanted me to just put cancer in a box and forget about it, because that’s what she had done.
I lean towards Audre’s outlook instead. She talks about, (having) survived cancer by scrutinizing its meaning within our lives, and by attempting to integrate this crisis into useful strengths for change. How could I have not changed? I’m not going back to the way I was before I had cancer. I see that as a waste of the cancer. But then that’s just me. Not everybody feels that way and that’s okay too.
My response to having breast cancer was very Sue. I searched for kindness and compassion from my family, friends and health professionals because that’s what I’ve always done, for my own reasons. I’m all about the soft stuff, so naturally I looked for it when I got cancer too. I struggle with fitting in and belonging, so I tried many support groups, outlets and cancer supportive organizations before I found my fit. I grapple with self-worth, so any rejection by family, friends and health professionals devastated me.
I’m a reader, so I read a lot in an attempt to understand how cancer feels. I’m a writer so I wrote about it for many reasons – to bear witness to myself, to offer constructive feedback, to say thank you, to bitch and moan, to collaborate, to heal myself.
I bristled against certain cancer words to describe myself (survivor, warrior) before settling on the neutral breast cancer haver. Now I am a woman who had breast cancer which is apparently gone now but has a 10% chance of coming back. That’s a mouthful but one word doesn’t sum me up. Mostly you can just call me Sue.
And finally, my paid work has been in patient experience, so this lens is particularly strong. I was tuned into every aspect of my experience with health care – from how appointments are booked (archaically) to bedside manner (a mix) to the waiting room environments (mostly crappy).
I’ve included my favourite GIF at the top of this post. This is where we lift each other up – even if we don’t look or behave exactly alike or have the same diagnosis. Let’s give each other permission to be sick – and live life – exactly as we want to, without fear of punishment. When a friend or family member or patient gets cancer, it is not about you. It is about them. Let them live own their story without your judgment.