As much as we’d like to say we are advancing in our war against cancer (of all kinds), there are still large numbers of folk out there, some of whom may be reading this very blog, who feel that cancer should not be discussed unless behind closed doors and in hushed tones.
It drives me crazy. Not because I don’t like whispering (sometimes, like in a library, it is even appropriate), but because cancer needs to be discussed in the open, with all members of one’s family (yes, even with children) involved. Cancer does not just strike the ‘survivor’ (I’ll talk about why I hate that word for people like me), but involves the whole familial unit. In my case, as a professor, it impacts not only my families by birth, marriage, or heart, but also my family of students and colleagues and the college where I spend a large amount of my time. When a member of one’s family is ill, it needs to be discussed and dealt with, and the person with the cancer needs to be acknowledged.
Here’s some of the things I was told when I’ve told people I had cancer, both times:
“Just forget about it!”
“Be grateful it wasn’t worse and get on with life.”
“Are you sure it is CANCER? I’ve had lumps in MY breasts and they weren’t cancer!”
“Stop Googling it!”
And my favorite, when I told someone I was considering bilateral mastectomy in lieu of radiation,
“Why on earth would you even consider THAT? You had skin cancer, too, why don’t you just have your skin removed?”
That last one I just considered cruel. But where do these crazy comments come from? In some folks attempt to cope with a devastating diagnosis, they resort to whispers. If you don’t say it, it won’t hit you. The truth is, when a family receives a diagnosis of any life-threatening illness, it needs to be dealt with as a family.
When I was 17, as I’ve noted before, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in situ. Thank G-d it was limited. What you may not know is my sister, who was 11 at the time, was concurrently diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma. Even though my cancer type was more deadly, hers was more advanced and required more reconstruction than I. She had to be hospitalized twice for reconstructive surgery. Thank G-d, she is now fine. But can you imagine my poor parents? Two children stricken at the same time? After my diagnosis and subsequent surgeries, my parents had to turn their energies to their next child. Not that my parents didn’t do the best they could at the time, but at that time, cancer was dealt with by ignoring it. I received no “post-trauma” counseling, even though I experienced behavior changes and depression. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, told me to not even think about it. However, it was a lot for a pisher like me to handle on my own.
And this is what drives my response today. I don’t want to sweep my cancer under the rug, because in this case, it makes the rug really lumpy and difficult to walk on. This time, I will do the sweeping, but I will need my friends and families to hold the dust pan for me. And I will not sweep my cancer under the rug. Instead I will dispose of the pieces of my shattered breasts in an appropriate manner and give my cancer proper attention. Because in this case, I don’t want to have to hold that broom again.