"You can be amazing, you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug. You can be the outcast or be the backlash of somebody's lack of love. Or you can start speaking up. Nothing's gonna hurt you the way that words do when they settle 'neath your skin. Kept on the inside and no sunlight, sometimes the shadow wins. But I wonder what would happen if you say what you wanna say and let the words fall out. Honestly, I want to see you be brave!"
Sara Bareilles "Brave"
A favorite phrase of mine is, "Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one," and I find the older I get - the more I reference it.
When I was first diagnosed in 2007 everyone had an opinion or point of view they felt the need to share with me regarding why I had gotten sick so young. My health (or apparent lack thereof) became a subject of debate. Then came the finger pointing. My weight, my lifestyle, my stressful job, my choice of deodorant, my bras, and my diet were all considered culprits depending on who was opining. I listened patiently, if not numbly. I don't know how much I really absorbed - I was kind of in a state of disbelief for several weeks. But some of the POV's scared me; some were downright insensitive. Looking back on the young woman I was in 2007, I believe my lifestyle was no different than most of my peers. I was too busy taking care of my family to take care of myself. Had I gained a little weight? Sure, but by no means was I obese. We were never a Hot Pocket every night kind of family. We cooked each night of the week and ate meals together and ate well. I had excellent blood pressure and cholesterol levels, beautiful skin, hair and fingernails. Should I have made time to exercise? Perhaps, but even my team of doctors considered me very healthy going into treatment and anticipated that that would make my ride a bit smoother. Was my job stressful? Of course, but honestly, the way the economy has been for the past decade, whose job doesn't stress them out? I think today, the average person lives with a tremendous amount of stress in the workplace, and we as a society, have adapted. My bras came from Victoria's Secret. My deodorant was from the drug store. I was living a life no differently than most working mothers. I hadn't thought for one minute that I gave myself cancer...yet haters gonna hate...and doubt began to seep in.
Recently I was in an online conversation with one of my inspiring, amazing survivor sistahs, Nicole, and the subject of cancer shaming came up. I realized that I had not only allowed myself to become a victim of cancer shaming seven years ago, but I did nothing to stand up to it or stand up for myself - in fact, I actually began to believe it. I became convinced it was my diet, my weight, my stressful job, my underwire bras, and my aluminum-filled deodorant. I had been blaming myself.
Interestingly enough though, when I was diagnosed again in 2012 my course ran a little differently. My lifestyle was drastically unlike what it had been when I was initially diagnosed. I weighed significantly less, I exercised nearly every day, and I had learned better coping tools to deal with on-the-job stress. I bought new bras. I swapped my drug store deodorant for a 'non-toxic' brand sold at Whole Foods for twice the price. I was doing everything in my power to stay healthy and yet, here I was sick again. This time the cancer shamers were nowhere to be found. Hmmmm, they are a fickle bunch aren't they?
When I met with my oncologist, Dr. Nahum, the first thing I said to him, while he was reviewing the pathology reports of my second cancer in 2012 was, "I don't understand. I did everything right."
He glanced up from the report with a look of surprise on his face. He then said, "You think you did this? You didn't do this. You cannot blame yourself. This just happened, and a secondary cancer can just happen in 20% of all cases. Please understand, you did absolutely nothing wrong." I was grateful for him taking the time to talk me down from the ledge. I was in a bad place. I allowed myself to believe the cancer shamers.
The more I learn about cancer and the more survivors I meet, the more I believe that cancer is something akin to a wildfire; if the conditions are hospitable, it will flourish. It is not something you 'ask for' nor is it something you invite (other than the cases of being well informed and still doing specific things that have a known risk of cancer, heavy smoking, repeatedly burning your skin to a crisp, drinking alcohol to extreme excess) but that is a separate discussion. I'm referring to the people who, while taking their first, fifth or tenth ride in the chemo chair, sit there wondering, "How the hell did this happen?" The thirtysomething single mother with stage IV pancreatic cancer whose smile lights up the chemo room. The forty year old marathon runner with stage III colon cancer who has a quick wit and sage advice. The bright eyed child who has lost all their hair but not their sprit. The millions diagnosed every year that want a cure and want answers. That's who I'm talking about today. The ones that have yet to identify the broken strand of DNA that made their body a breeding ground for rogue cells. The ones who have genetic markers that have yet to be identified. The ones who may be drinking unidentified toxins in their water. The ones that just pulled the short straw. The ones who are most likely to believe the cancer shaming.
It makes me angry. We are so tough on ourselves we rarely see what others see in us; our light, our beauty, our being. We are so quick to judge ourselves and in turn give others the carte blanche to judge us too.
So today I implore my readers, let the cancer shaming end with you.
When next you hear of someone newly diagnosed bestow upon them a random act of kindness; a meal, a card, a plant, an open heart. Listen to their fears if they want to talk, hold their hand if they don't. Be sensitive, be kind, empathize and by all means do not opine. Do not judge.
Cancer is a diagnosis - not a definition. The disease does not define us. It is just a part of who we are, like curly hair or freckles. Words can be a weapon, and while we may be overwhelmed by our diagnosis, treatment plan or our lives outside of cancer we may not always speak up in our own defense. We may have more pressing things to take care of than putting the cancer shamers in their place. We may let those words settle into our psyche where they will dim our light, take up residence and make our journey so much harder than it has to be.
We still feel and fear and hope and wish. We are brave, every day, weather we feel like it or not. We fight every day to stay here. To be with the ones we love. And weather that time is short or blessedly long the last thing we should be spending our days doing is beating ourselves up, thinking we had done something to cause this and believing the cancer shamers.