Three years ago I was dealing with my mom dying from cancer. It was rough, to say the least, but I feel like I’m in a better spot now and able to share some things that I wrote back then. This compilation of comments I made on my personal page is edited for vulgarities (I swear!) and clarity, but since the statements still feel so very true and real to me I left all wording in the present tense.
It’s hard to say this out loud, because I may come off as callous, but if one just looked at my news feed on a regular basis, you would assume that all people with cancer are beautiful bald women and children with tons of social support. But cancer is ugly, and not everyone has a large social network to throw benefits in their honor. There aren’t organizations to help depressed old smokers to make a wish come true before they die. And it’s not that I begrudge anyone’s celebration, I just want to remind everyone that cancer is ugly and lonely, and not everyone gets to walk away with a trophy.
I think it would be fantastic if people acknowledged those battling cancer who won’t be able to hold up a sign on Facebook saying that they beat it, or that it’s their last day of chemo, etc. Not everyone with cancer is a “survivor". Some quietly fight for their lives, regardless of how brief it may be, to spend just a few more days or months on this planet. And they deserve our attention too.
My point is that we glamorize beating cancer, rewarding the “winners” with notoriety, giving preferential attention to the visible. All while many are too sick to join a 5K or have their picture spread on the internet. Cancer is ugly and it kills. It kills nice people and mean people, people who lived life to the fullest and those who didn’t, people who changed their circumstances or risk factors and some who didn’t, some who took charge and fought and some who give up early on. I think it would be far more honest if our society acknowledged the ugliness of all cancer and made a concerted effort to not glamorize it.
Like I said before, this is difficult to say publicly because it sounds like I don’t care about people like the adorable twin with fantastic dimples all over my news feed at the moment. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I care about him, my friends who have had cancer in the past that have beaten it, a best friend who is currently battling stage 4 melanoma, my mom battling stage 4 small cell carcinoma, my patients who come in frightened about a symptom that may be cancer, and so many others.
But what I see, is that I’m one of a few who is willing to talk about the ugly side. I see this inspirational stuff and it makes me annoyed and angry. We put pretty pictures on Facebook of people beating cancer because talking about the death and destruction that cancer causes to the person and to their families is uncomfortable. I once had to rebuild 2/3rds of a man’s face because of jaw cancer that left him dead and mangled after 17 surgeries. [For those of you who didn’t know, my first profession was an Embalmer.]
And it’s partly my fault because I don’t want to talk about how in the last 1-2 months my mom was hospitalized for pancreatitis, found out all of her brain tumors are back, went through another 2 weeks of whole head radiation, suffered a pulmonary embolism on the final day of radiation, was put on warfarin, puked so hard she fell out of bed and is now covered in bruises thanks to the warfarin. But I’ve had enough of the beautifying of cancer. I’m officially done. I’ve kept quiet for far too long and I’m now going to be that outspoken jerk.
I don’t think there is an easy way to deal with it, but I can tell you that watching my mom slip away in tiny pieces, day by day is awful. She’s not my mom, but she’s not dead, and I don’t know which is worse. I see the inevitable and I don’t want it to ever come, but part of me wishes I could just rip the bandaid off quickly so I don’’t have to watch her suffer and wither into a shadow of the woman who sacrificed her whole life to make mine better.
And to bring up another ugly aspect of cancer, I feel that we sympathize less for those who don’t live a pristine life, or decide to get all holistic when diagnosed, or those who choose not to do the conventional route, or those who are older instead of kids. We get kind of judgy when it comes to the most personal of decisions. I wasn’t the least bit surprised with my mom, and I don’t blame her for choosing the conventional route over what I had to offer. And her life isn’t worth any less to me because she smoked all those years. But I definitely feel (and maybe it’s just me) like people put out a she-got-what-she-deserved vibe.
No one deserves cancer. No one’s life is more valuable than others. No one deserves to feel guilty about how they choose to live their life. No one deserves condemnation during the hardest struggle they will ever endure. They just need our support. The ugly ones, the depressed ones, the ones too weak to get out of a chair much less walk a 5k.
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