When I was smack in the middle of six rounds of chemotherapy, I was working almost full time, and I also had the strength to cultivate a vibrant spring vegetable garden. I was doing everything I could to keep myself in good health.
I had an email exchange with a colleague, an attorney who was then working in my office building. I often referred clients to her for areas I don’t work on. I also knew that she’s a yoga teacher.
I emailed to ask if she could please come down to my office and show me some restorative yoga practices. She didn’t have time for that but recommended a book.
Then she wrote a strange comment that I couldn’t quite place in context at the time. She wrote: “Hope it feels like spring to you on all levels.” What? I wrote back that it really didn’t feel like spring. I tried to explain what it’s like to go through chemotherapy, including some of the gruesome details. She wrote back: “What a huge, life altering/opening experience you are going through.”
Stunned, I dropped the email exchange (but saved it), and I also stopped referring any clients to her. That was over two years ago and, of course, she never checked back to find out if I was alive or dead. Why should she?
It was a while before I was able to place her comments in an understanding that this is part of the “cancer is a gift” ideology.
Of all the stupid, crazy, hurtful things that ignorant people say to cancer patients, the most insidious is this: “your cancer is a gift.” I can’t count the number of people who have said exactly these words to me.
To which, one might reply: well, then, take it back to the department store it came from! Or, if it’s such a “gift,” how about you take it?
Usually, the comment is made by someone with a sugar-sappy smile on her face. She would claim she means nothing but the best, so it’s hard to challenge in the moment when the comment is made.
And then there are some other cancer survivors, a few with their own blogs, who proclaim that their cancer was a gift — yep, the best thing that ever happened to them.
Sometimes the evident subtext is that before she knew she had cancer, she had led an unexamined life. Maybe she was a corporate work-a-holic or stuck in a bad marriage or drinking like a fish and eating junk. Now, she’s seen the light and spends her time meditating and helping others. That’s great. It is wise to take a catastrophe and learn from it, find some redeeming value from it.
The problem lies with telling me or someone else what our experience is or ought to be. Our cancer is not a “gift.” Even with healthy survivorship, it’s an ongoing job with a zillion follow-up appointments and tests, scars, disfigurement, side effects from drugs, unending wondering, if not worry, about recurrence.
Anyone can say anything they want. But calling cancer a “gift” – calling it a ham sandwich or a visit from the tooth fairy – will not make it so. It’s a health problem, for us as individuals. It is a public health epidemic, taking a huge toll in our society.
Why, then, are comments such as those made by my office neighbor –who had no time to share a few yoga tips — so common?
I think it’s about the speaker’s intention to distance herself from someone else’s experience of suffering. I don’t think it comes from good intentions.
If I say: I’m your same gender, same ethnicity, about your age, live in your town, and my body is being pumped full of chemicals in order to stop a disease that would otherwise kill me, my hair has all fallen out, I’ve got a gigantic scar on one breast, and the cancer may come back one day, then someone saying: “oh, that’s such a gift” is her way of saying: “this isn’t really happening.”
Or: It’s not happening the way you say it’s happening. Let me tell you how you should feel about it. You should feel like spring is breaking out all over! I hope you know that you’ve been given this wonderful life-altering event! What’s the matter with you, why aren’t you just GRATEFUL?
Telling someone else what their experience should be is the height of not seeing them, not hearing them.
The “cancer is a gift” meme is part of a pink ribbon ideology. An ideology is a belief system, in support of the status quo, or in support of changing social views and behavior, depending on what the ideology happens to be. “Cancer is a gift” supports a system of denial.
Denial is rather convenient.
By denying the reality of my experience, the office colleague felt no need to spend a few minutes sharing yoga with me. Or, to ever again make contact.
“Cancer is a gift” gets people off the hook.
There’s an epidemic of happy-talk and denial of social suffering, whether it’s our miserable rates of poverty or the many reasons for frequent “lone-nut” shootings and police violence, let alone the destruction of the natural environment. (See Barbara Ehrenreich’s provocative 2009 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.)
As I slogged through cancer treatment, I learned to recognize the many verbal variations on “cancer is a gift,” all the talk-talk about “heroes” and “warriors,” about “creating your own reality” and “you chose this,” and “isn’t your life so much better now that you’ve had cancer?”
I don’t respect any of this nonsense.
I think it reveals a lack of common sense, logic and compassion. All I can do is critique it. And then tune it out.