Is there a hierarchy among cancer survivors?

It has been enlightening  and uplifting to read your comments on my post on knowing when it is time to walk away from a situation.  One line from Cathy’s comment really stood out as it brought up another topic that has been on my mind recently.

I felt like a fraud when diagnosed as in I didn’t need chemo just surgery, rads & tamox so I didn’t want to make any fuss when so many others had REAL cancer.

So today’s question dear readers – is there a hierarchy among cancer survivors? Is the experience scalable? Do some “suffer” more than others? Are some of us “braver”?  Do some of us look up to/look down on others who have “suffered” more/less?  Are some of us more “entitled” to carry the “survivor” label? (Forgive the clichés, but I think for once using them drives home the point).

A diagnosis of cancer is a traumatic event in anyone’s life and I don’t believe we can compare the level of trauma. Cancer is cancer, is cancer, and how you process that, regardless of the treatment you did/didn’t receive, can only be truly assessed according to your individual experience.

Cathy goes on to say in her comment that because she thought she hadn’t had “real cancer”, she forced herself back to a highpowered job too soon.

after 3 months I had a total melt down. I blamed Tamoxifen (and in truth I had bl@@dy awful side effects requiring follow up treatment) but I truly believe a lot of it was to do with my refusal to face up to the fact that I had a mortality impacting disease and recognise that I had to let go of my old ideas of ‘me’ as a highly capable, career woman.

I find this so interesting. We minimize our pain – and this doesn’t just relate to cancer – because we feel we didn’t suffer enough and so our trauma is less than someone who did. The natural follow on from this line of reasoning? We can pick up our lives where we left off  and because we did not have to go through any surgical, chemotherapeutic or radiotherapeutic healing of the cancer, we do not have to emotionally heal from it either.

Or perhaps it is not ourselves that are doing the minimizing of our pain, but others. Often they are well-meaning – by pointing out how much worse it could have been for you, they are trying to console you in their own ham-fisted way. Sometimes, it is other cancer survivors who feel you haven’t got the right to your pain because you haven’t “suffered” as much as they have. Whether these thoughts come from your own mind or that of others, it all serves the same purpose – it invalidates your experience and impedes your healing journey. Cathy’s comment makes that point so well.

And it is not just in talking about cancer that we find these levels of suffering. I have encountered it when dealing with infertility and the death of my mother too – this sense that there is always someone who has suffered more/less from the experience than you have, and therefore their experience is more valid.  None of us truly knows the pain another person goes through when they experience a life changing event, and by learning to not compare experiences, we are learning to practise some much-needed compassion both for ourselves and others.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Plato