It’s not a gift, people

I ran into a woman at the gym who I hadn’t seen in a while. She didn’t know about my little bout with breast cancer, and when she asked what I’ve been up to, I told her. I told her the truth, that it was a simple cancer that was caught early and is highly treatable. The cancer was pretty simple, but the post-mastectomy infection was very complicated. I’m still dealing with the mess from that damned infection.

She asked a lot of questions, trotting out the usual suspects. I don’t mind the questions, and I don’t begrudge her curiosity. Here’s how the conversation went down: How did you know you had cancer? I didn’t. At my annual well-woman exam my OB-GYN found a lump that I never felt, even when she put my hand right on it. Why didn’t you do a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy? Because I wanted to slash & burn each and every cancer cell in the area. Do you regret having chosen such a drastic surgery? Nope, not one bit. Turns out there was cancer in the other breast, that didn’t show up in any of the pre-surgery testing. Do you have a family history of breast cancer? Not so muchMy cousin Cheryl had it nearly 20 years ago, but my mom and her sister both died of different cancers. How old was your mom when she died? 67. Way too young, and not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t ache — some days physically but mostly it’s mental — from missing her, and while the grief certainly isn’t as raw after nearly 6 years, I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing her. How did you hide it from your kids? I didn’t try to but instead explained everything and reassured them that my cancer wasn’t going to kill me like YaYa’s killed her. 

It was a perfectly normal conversation — well, perfectly normal now that I’m among the 1 in 8 women who will contract this damned disease — and then she said it: the one thing that sets my teeth on edge, that makes me feel like steam is coming out of my ears, that makes me have to work really, really hard not to punch someone in the brain.

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She said, “It sounds like it’s been hard, but it’s so good to see you working hard in the gym. What a gift you’ve been given. Aren’t you so lucky to be so young and strong, and to have come out of this so well?”

I was speechless. I probably looked like a fish on a hook, mouth opening and closing, wondering what the hell just happened.

Of course I realize she was trying to say the right thing, and in all likelihood was even trying to compliment me with the “OMG, you look so healthy for someone who’s battled cancer” business. I know it’s a sticky situation, people, and that it’s hard to find the right thing to say. But really, is it that difficult?

I’m the absolute last person to look at a cancer diagnosis as a gift. It’s not. It’s a diagnosis of a terrible, terrifying disease. If you think cancer is a gift, kindly remove me from your list of people for whom you shop. I’m out. Yes, good things can come from a bad situation: new friendships blossom, existing relationships are strengthened, the depths of one’s character are carefully examined, yadda yadda. But at the end of the day, if someone tells me I’m better off for having had cancer, I call bullshit.

I recently read an interview with Melissa Etheridge about her breast cancer. She joined the pink ribbon club in October 2004, and has been quite outspoken about her “cancer journey.” I like Melissa Etheridge. I like her blatant feminism and her moxie. She displayed some rockin courage when she performed, bald, at the Grammys shortly after being diagnosed.

Things like her bald performance are very good for cancer patients, no doubt. Her decision to not wear a wig forces people to see the harsher sides of cancer, and I applaud her courage in putting herself out there, even if seeing her bald head makes some people uncomfortable. Especially if seeing her bald head makes some people uncomfortable.

But she also talks about cancer about something for which she’s grateful. I guess that takes courage, too, but I have a problem with it. She says that when someone tells her they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, her reply is “Wow, great! Your body is telling you that you can’t go on like this and you have to change. You’ll look back on your disease and say ‘I’m glad that happened to me.’ ”

Well, guess what? There was precious little in my life that needed to change pre-cancer. I exercised 6 days a week, ate heathfully, drank lots of water, avoided toxins, and worked hard to have a balanced and healthy life. Cancer got me anyway. I certainly won’t look back on this — assuming it ever ends — and say I’m glad it happened to me. Uh uh. No sir. No way. I can’t imagine looking back on this and saying I’m glad it happened. That its was a gift. Not in a million years.

Listen, Melissa: someone who’s newly diagnosed — and most likely terrified, freaked out, and shocked — does not need to hear someone essentially say, “Oops, I guess you’ve been doing it all wrong and this is your fault.” I don’t care if you are a celebrity and a Grammy winner. Zip it. No one needs to hear that. And no one needs to hear that cancer is a gift, either.

Sheesh. I’m not even going to get into the whole mess of it’s easy for her to say that, she’s a star and has plenty of money/time/resources/help/clout. That’s a post for another day (even though it’s true). Let’s stick to the idea of how wrong it is to imply that the person with cancer is somehow at fault, that he/she did something or didn’t do something that caused their cells to go wonky and create a shitstorm in their body. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I will never forget my sweet  breast surgeon Dr Dempsey looking me in the eye while holding both my  hands and saying, “This is not your fault. You did not cause this cancer.” Here’s that part of the notes that Boss Lady took for me that day (doesn’t she have nice handwriting?). I’m not a touchy-feely person at all, but Dr Dempsey is, and she did me a huge favor that day by looking me in the eye and telling me that this is not my fault. I’m all for accepting responsibility, but not here, not when it comes to cancer. It’s not my fault, I’m not glad it happened to me, and it’s not a gift.

13 Comments on “It’s not a gift, people”

  1. David Benbow says:

    Right on, girl! The real gift comes in the ability to enjoy the good times in life without having to contrast them with all the shitty times that come in between.

  2. Eddie says:

    Your use of the phrase “simple cancer” really struck me. It was. Yet I have a hard time thinking of any cancer as simple. Just as I can not see any cancer as a gift. First off, using the word gift suggests that there was intent or design behind you getting cancer and I want no part of any person, god, or universe that would intentionally inflict cancer on someone. And as you pointed out, it’s no gift that you come out of the “cancer journey” with something beneficial when you could have had that good thing without the cancer! Melissa Ethridge pisses me off!! Your body is telling you that you can’t go on like this? Why? Because “going on like this” caused the cancer??? Grr. Next time punch people and tell them they have been given a gift from cancer.

  3. S. Martinez says:

    I knew I should have been at the gym with you today! I would have nipped all that in the bud! Hence, Boss Lady! Love ya!
    P.S. Thanks for the handwriting compliment! I wrote like crazy that afternoon! 🙂

  4. “Outsiders” really don’t know what to say or how to approach someone who’s had cancer, and for most of them, they won’t until it happens to them.

    I, too, was the poster girl for healthy living and it got me anyway. BTW, a lot of oncologists aren’t thrilled with Melissa Ethridge, but for a different reason: She refused to take the full course of her chemo because she didn’t want neuropathy affecting they way she played the guitar. If that’s true, I’m not sure her decision-making process is firing on all cylinders.

  5. Nellie says:

    I had uterine cancer, and I sure got sick of people saying I had the “good kind of cancer.” Excuse me? Would you like take mine, then? It’s true there are variations, and some people are definitely worse off than others. But please – don’t tell me it’s a “gift” or that I got the “good kind.” You think you’re being all New Age-y and wise, but you’re just being a jerk.

  6. Oh, this was a wonderful post that really resonated with me. I get it, I hear ya, I agree. Thank you.

  7. Jan Hasak says:

    It’s definitely not your fault (how could anyone imply that?) and it is definitely not a gift. Some people really are callous, but what is nice is we are educating people through our blogs on what to say that is healing. Maybe what we say will stick at some level. Who knows? Thanks for venting in this enlightening post.

  8. What is a blessing is your ability to not punch that lady in the nose. I don’t view any disease as a blessing. We may be able to find the good in a bad situation, but phoeey on the whole blessing thing. GRrrrr… that just pisses me off.

  9. Trevor Hicks says:

    Anyone who can honestly look back on a cancer diagnosis as a gift must have had a seriously f’d up life before.

  10. PinkHeart says:

    I was laughing and crying while reading your post – thanks for your humor and honesty. I seriously just had this “gift” discussion with my therapist last week. I told her I was so tempted to tell all the caring? people who have said this to me since I started this journey through hell three months ago that, if it is a gift, then it’s the shittiest one I’ve ever received, and I hope there is a gift receipt because I want to return it NOW.

  11. […] the changes are bad, mind, but know this: you will never read one word on this blog, now or ever, about cancer being a gift. If cancer is a gift, I sure as hell hope there’s a gift receipt, because I’m going to […]

  12. […] how surviving cancer can make one appreciate life even more. I will never, ever, ever say that cancer is a gift or that it’s changed my life for the better or that there is a silver lining under that dark […]

  13. I would never ever use the word “gift” but I sometimes use the word “catalyst” Just like fire ants in my underwear would make me get up and dance even if I had no intention to dance before.

    Gift? Hell no. But I’ll have to admit, it’s something.

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