The burden of being positive in the face of cancer

The burden of being positive in the face of cancer
Betsy on the beach a few weeks before she died.

We are bombarded every day with images of how we should feel and what we should look like. We learn from television and magazines that cleaning the house with (name your product) should bring joy. We learn that being good parents is primarily about the kind of diaper that we buy. Not only should we be thin, but being thin should make us happy.

These images create in us an intolerance of who we are. When I mop my floor I wear gym shorts that have bleached splotches all over them and I wear a headband to hold back dirty hair from my eyes. Sometimes I’m resentful that I’m the only one in my family who seems to be able to use the mop. And when the job is done, when the floor is clean, I’m not only not joyful, but I’m also worried about why I’m not joyful.

Should I wear pressed khakis and a smart button-down shirt, comb my hair into a tasteful ponytail and be careful not to sweat as I clean the floor? Would that make it easier for me to feel joyful while using (name your product) to clean my floor?

Of course not. We shouldn’t be looking for joy from a cleaning product. Many normal, productive, interesting people find mopping tedious and unfulfilling. And clean floors don’t provide much in the way of inner sustenance.

Bombarding us with images of cancer patients who are cheerful and upbeat, who achieve things that average cancer-free people can’t achieve, who find cancer a catalyst for transformation also creates intolerance.

What if you’re too sick to be cheerful or to run or to sing? What if making lunches for your children to take to school is the best, most productive thing you can accomplish? What if you’re just an average person, struggling to cope with a scary diagnosis?

On top of facing your own mortality, dealing with surgeries, treatments, anxiety and fear, remolding your self image because of lost hair and body parts, attempting to keep a job, and wading through insurance paperwork, you are saddled with the burden of being positive in the face of cancer.

On top of facing cancer, we need to inspire everyone else. The world seems to tell us that we should also compete in endurance sports, eat a diet free of toxins and sugar, and be cheerful while we’re doing it all, dammit. In our spare time it would help a lot if we recorded a hit single, went viral on YouTube, and won the Tour d’France.

I’m as moved as the next person by the YouTube videos of people with cancer who are positive and upbeat, who give motivational speeches about how to live, who run marathons despite their suffering. These people are inspiring. They’re the kind of people who change the world.

But I’m also weary of hearing these stories.

Please don’t misunderstand. For the cancer patients among us, like Kristin McQueeen, who run marathons and compete in triathlons and accomplish their dreams and change the world, I have deep respect.

If living well is the best revenge, then competing in triathlons while coping with a brain tumor is one hell of a way to extend your middle finger. Run that bastard into the ground, Kristin.

But there are other ways to live well, too. Like my friend Betsy, who gathered boxes of photographs and compiled albums with detailed captions for every last one so that her daughter would know the stories that the photographs told.

Betsy died when she was 41. Her daughter was just 7. She was very angry the last time I saw her, furious that she would be unable to raise her daughter. There was nothing cheerful or upbeat about her. She refused to accept the burden of being positive.

Despite that, she was an inspiration to me because she was able to do a few things to care for her daughter in a future that they would not share. She gave me an image of a cancer patient that I can relate to. Though she never knew it, by living and dying as herself, she has helped me accept who I am now that I, too, am a cancer patient.

Hit the “like” button up top and join my Facebook Fan Page community

If you’d like to know first-hand when I have a new post, type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Leave a comment