Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Gift of Breast Cancer? I'd Like A Refund.

"I would never wish cancer on anyone. But I wouldn't give back the experience either."
"You are forced to either look upon the experience as a curse, or a lesson in life/challenge to learn from and grow from. Ie., a "blessing"!"

These are real quotes sourced from comments posted to an article written by Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) entitled, The Gift Of Cancer.  That's right. The. Gift. Of. Cancer.  Gift. Cancer.  Really ?  These are not words that I would ever wish to see in the same sentence. Ever. And yet, I seem to be surrounded by this kind of sentiment.

Are there people out there who actually see cancer as a gift ?  An experience they would never give back ? A blessing ? Are people now drinking the chemo ?

This week I had plenty of opportunity to ponder my own particular gift and associated blessings. As I was injected with another vile vial of radioactive goop by Nurse I-Couldn't-Hit-A-Vein-If-My-Life-Depended-On-It, so that my entire body could be scanned for more Breastmas-Tree-like lights whilst lying perfectly still in a dirt-nap state in a machine that is strangely reminiscent of lying in a coffin.  (Now, not personally knowing any vampires outside of Sookie and the gang from True Blood, I can't attest to the accuracy of this statement, but I think the only difference might be that the occupant of said machine has a pulse).  Anyway, before I launch into a dull tirade on the indignities of the whole PET/CT scan thing, let me get back to the point of this post.

From a sociocultural perspective, much of what I see and hear in the media regarding the breast cancer "experience" seems to carry with it an aura of calm, peaceful reflection and contemplation.  One could be forgiven for thinking that breast cancer is simply a journey on a well-trodden path that begins with a test of marathon endurance and ends with tangible feelings of achievement, clarity and purpose for the newly minted heroic Survivor.  In an almost graceful state of being, the triumphant Survivor peels back the veneer of her previous  existence to transform into a new and better person filled with wisdom and experiences, feeling eternally grateful and a saintly duty to repay the favors of her life and bestow the gifts of her cancer journey on the world around her.     Epiphanic sentiment abounds.   Transcendent survivorship seems to be the modus operandi in today's breast cancer culture.

And maybe this is exactly  how it is for many who have been through the breast cancer "experience", and I'm not saying that this is wrong.  Everybody has their own reality.  But it is the popular public notion of how a person dealing with breast cancer is imagined to be that I have a problem with. Because when you get to the point where breast cancer is  with you 24/7, with no end-game in sight as far as treatment is concerned,  and the relentless advancing of your disease no matter what you do, the concept of transcendent survivorship is a bitter pill to try and swallow.  In fact, I find it downright alienating.

Gayle Sulik in her recently published tome, Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health, expounds on these popular notions of Survivorship and indeed proposes the"feeling rules of breast cancer survivorship" as an overarching social framework within the context of breast cancer culture.  Ms Sulik writes:
"Feeling Rule 1:  Survivorship requires a strong sense of optimism in terms of hope, faith, and transcendence.
Feeling Rule 2: Survivorship necessitates selfishness, which is constructed in masculine terms as a rational coping strategy or as a confession of gender violations related to women's nurturance and selflessness.
Feeling Rule 3: Guilt results from the stigma associated with failing to present oneself adequately as a she-roic survivor, losing bodily integrity, or disrupting gender roles."
.......The feeling rules of breast cancer survivorship empower and constrain throughout the breast cancer experience, and within women's particular circumstances..........the rules contribute to a "balancing act" as women try to carve out their own mode of survivorship and establish equilibrium between their needs and the needs of others."
Exactly right.  No wonder I feel the way I do.  Honestly,  having cancer has left me with nothing but a gnawing sense of what might have been and what definitely won't be.  It has forced me to confront a whole bunch of crap that, quite frankly, I could have done without.  My life was just fine before cancer rudely barged in and now that I'm just living with it and trying to accept that this is just the way it's going to be,  I certainly don't feel like I'm transcending and morphing into a higher being.  I'm just getting on with it the best way I know how.

The Gift of Breast Cancer.
It doesn't fit. Can I return it ?
For me at least,  terming any part of the cancer experience as a gift or a blessing just seems plain wrong.  Okay I probably do have a greater appreciation for life's simple pleasures and I'm certainly a more compassionate and thinking human being, but I don't see any of this as a gift or a blessing.  A gift is something that makes you feel a bit special and comes without any strings attached.  Cancer takes away so much more than can ever be imagined, and to try and portray this otherwise by putting a positive spin on any part of the experience is what, I believe, is being perpetuated by the pinking of the breast cancer realm.   Isn't what we go through invalidated by using the words like "gift" and "blessing" in the same sentence as cancer? Describing any part of the experience of cancer with terms such as these, boxes up the truth with a pretty pink ribbon to be neatly filed away under "Positive Life-Affirming Experiences" or something similar.  I don't care if the experience of breast cancer causes you to morph into the next Mother Theresa, the fact remains that nothing, nada, zilch can ever be enough to compensate for what is lost to breast cancer. It's an evil curse and I don't intend to ever see it any other way.

Is it shocking to you in reading this that I sound so angry and bitter ?  Yes ?  Why ?  Because this is the myth of populist "survivorship".  It is not everybody's reality.  Doesn't anger just make me human?     So what does all this mean ?  I don't know, but I'm sure as hell not going to give up being angry that this happened to me, and I'm sure as hell not going to give up writing about it.  In fact I would say that feeling angry is a good thing.  At least for me.  It feeds the fire.   My people will just have to deal with it.

After all, I am.


  1. Anna, so well written. You have every right to be angry this happened to you. It sucks! And the way it's viewed now in the media, and throughout the corporate world "in the name of awareness," is sometimes insulting to those of us that live with it everyday. There are pink bracelets being worn by young girls with the saying "I (heart) Boobies" in the name of breast cancer awareness. It's crap like that, that spins the reality of this disease out of control. Are we supposed to be cutesy about it?

    Anyway, I'm starting to rant, so I'll stop by saying I totally agree with you, and now I'm pissed off even more.

    Great, important post.

  2. Stacey thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. It's good to know that I'm not alone in feeling this way. I agree that the reality and seriousness of this disease is being hidden behind this pink veil of positivity and light and a mode of "survivorship" that is simply not the case for many of us. Expressing my anger doesn't mean that I am without hope or positive thought for myself, but I must be free to articulate what I'm truly feeling otherwise I feel like I'm just perpetuating the lie. Plus it makes me feel better. By the way, did you see this article from the NY Times this weekend ?

  3. Anna, I did see that article. That's where I read about the boobies bracelet. It's all frustrating and sad. Yeah, we have to think positively for ourselves, but it shouldn't lessen what it all means. it's still cancer, after all. Nothing pink about it.

  4. Actually I wrote about the "I Love Boobies" thing a while's my two-cents worth on that particular campaign...

  5. Anna --

    Yes and yes an yes. Keep it up. It's the antidote to
    a weird, sugar-coated culture that can't understand not every experience comes with a ready-made, uplifting life lesson.

    Anna 2

  6. Anna 2 - thanks for stopping by. It's nice to connect with other like-minded folks. Sometimes I do feel like a salmon swimming upstream so it's good to know my rantings are resonating out there in cyberspace. ;)

  7. Brilliantly written Anna. Please don't stop. I'm glad I'm not alone with anger about breast cancer and how it has changed my life. You are so right - nothing can compensate.

    Cancer. Is. Not. A. Gift.


  8. Thanks for writing Sarah. You are definitely not alone.....

  9. Yes well that's the thing isn't it Anna - resonating in cyberspace feels SO good!!!

  10. I cried reading this post...full out ugly crying...tears of sadness at what has been lost, the pain of what may never be regained AND relief that someone has said aloud what I have only whispered. I've written some poetry on my breast cancer experience - - as a means of purging some of the pain & anger, but have since resisted the urge to commit more of my feelings to paper as I felt guilty at the lack of rah-rah, life is renewed and grand. After reading your eloquent and accurate words I have decided "to hell with it" and am going to begin writing again TODAY... sharing my own breast cancer experience truth. Thank you for your candor and willingness to share!

  11. Thank you Colleen, not only for validating my feelings, but more importantly, yours. Write, write and keep writing. It's your voice. Not anyone else's and someone is out there listening. Trust me.

  12. Ah yes. The platitudes we have to deal with from the well meaning general public.

    "At least you got the good kind."

    "Just think positive."

    "You look beautiful (bald)"

    "Your hair will grow back."

    "You're strong! You can beat this!"

    Well GUESS WHAT??? I did not WANT to sign up for this club. I got yanked into it and I am PISSED off. I am a freaking lab rat with drugs STILL coursing through my body to counteract the drugs I have to take for FIVE years to increase my chance of living. I KNOW that if more money was put into a cure, vaccine, prevention - None of us would have to deal with this craptacular reality.

    But is that going to happen? Nooooo. Cancer is a cow to be milked by big pharma, doctors, non-profits and smarmy corporations. A cow with big, brown docile eyes and a pink ribbon around her neck. A cow that would walk smiling to the slaughter house because HEAVEN forbid she lash out and be pissed off that she's a COW being MILKED.

    Yeah. Don't get me started.

    Denise McConachie

  13. Oh I'm just getting started Denise....believe me I hear you. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Drinking the chemo!
    LOVE IT.
    I need to borrow that phrase.

    Not sure how I stumbled onto your blog, but I'm so glad I did.
    You are an amazing writer and I'm looking forward to following along on your journey..


  15. Welcome stales ! Nice to have you along for the ride. Yes "drinking the chemo" does feel a bit that way with some of the crazy things I read...Thanks so much for your comment.

  16. So true. And so sad that most people don't seem to get it. I heard the comments a thousand times, 'be positive' 'at least it's the good kind of cancer' - what the fuck does that mean? and 'you've caught it early' - how do you KNOW you caught it early? The truth is nobody knows. And it's never over. There is always the waiting to see what happens once the treatment ends... it just plain sucks.

    It's not what I wanted for my life. And I hate to hear people tell me I'm 'strong' or 'brave'. I don't have any other choice. I am trying to live!

  17. I'm with you. I want my life back. And I don't see anything that can or will make up for what I have lost, spiritually, emotionally and physically. Cancer just keeps on taking. Surely that is not in any way the nature of a gift.


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