When cancer doesn’t make you brave

A piece written on the honest cancer blog last month caught my eye, as it echoed a piece I also posted in April about societal expectations of cancer patients to be upbeat, stoic and positive all the time when often the reality is that people with cancer often do not feel anything like this. Instead feelings of fear, sadness, loss and depression can dog their footsteps

The author of this blog writes:

 “Our attitude about cancer treats survival as though it were an act of will, rather than a complex medical process, and idealizes constant struggle. Although we work diligently to advance cancer as an activist cause, we instinctively idealize the strong cancer survivor—the one that who made it was able to make it through through with the power of positive thinking. In doing so, we first, suggest optimism can beat cancer, and second, leave those struggling unsuccessfully against cancer without legitimate support.

The writer of this blog points out that we feel obliged “to display optimism in the face of cancer because it is reassures the people around us… As cancer survivor Brian Wickman told the New York Times on June 30th 2008, when his friends placed him on a pedestal and told him how brave he was, he wasn’t allowed to “be human and in pain, angry or depressed.” Our awareness promotes stoicism in the face of cancer, grief in the face of death, and celebration only in the face of complete victory against cancer; it creates unfair expectations for people fighting cancer and deprives them of an outlet for their darker fears by deeming them inappropriateweak, and possibly even a barrier to their survival.”

The question remains, does that upbeat, bravely battling cancer face shown to us (often by high-profile cancer patients) really inspire us or does it merely reinforce unrealistic expectations that everyone should approach cancer with stoicism and courage.  Today I saw a picture of a very frail but “bravely battling cancer” Patrick Swayze , issued apparently to quash rumours of his demise, which started on Twitter.

Does the well meaning advice of others, such as “you gotta think positive” or “you’re strong – you can beat this”  help or hinder? Does it lead to the tyranny of positive thinking and make some cancer patients feel like they are letting themselves and others down by not acting this way? And what of the school of thought which claims that positive thinking can actually cure cancer and conversely that your negativity or hopelessness is a contributing cause of the disease. How much damage has that done? While I believe a sense of hope is vital, a pressure to feel positive all the time can also be damaging if it doesn’t allow the person to truly confront their fears.  Don’t deny your feelings and don’t hide them on those days when a Positive Mental Attitude eludes you.

My final observation is that the very words we use to describe dealing with cancer have become infected with connotations of suffering and war . One of the words often used in the media to describe someone with cancer is a “cancer victim” or someone who is “suffering from cancer”. Well I never saw

The war analogy places the emphasis on cancer as a battle  and the cancer patient, a warrior bravely fighting the disease. Again, this metaphor may be perfect for some, while for others it makes them feel inadequate if they think they are not brave enough or strong enough to fight. And how often do we see the words “lost their fight with cancer” or a “fight bravely borne”, when reading about the death of someone from cancer. It assumes that death is a failure and precludes the notion that often at the end, the person has made peace with their death.

That is why I prefer to use the term cancer journey, rather than battle. While acknowledging that battle may suit some, the analogy of being on a journey, with all its twists and turns, uphills and downhills, crossroads and u-turns is one I am most comfortable with. On a journey there are no winners or losers, it is a passage or progress from one stage to another and however you feel on that journey is the way you are feeling. There is no right or wrong way to feel or to be. There is no pre-written script for the cancer journey and you are free to write your own script based on your own story and that to me is a wonderfully liberating concept.

Related Post: The language of cancer