When Cancer Put Me Under Suspicion

“When Cancer Put Me Under Suspicion.” By Claire Peeps, ZÓCALO PUBLIC SQUARE.

I Didn’t Realize Illness Would Threaten My Credibility. Running 26 Miles Helped.

In late 2006, I underwent a clean, routine mammogram. Six weeks later, I found a small lump in my left breast. Two weeks and two surgeries after that, on January 23, 2007, I was diagnosed with Stage 2-3 breast cancer. It was the lobular type that doesn’t show up on mammograms. When I got the diagnosis, the doctors used unfamiliar words and carried on as if I understood them. Lobular, ductal, receptors. Malignant. That’s the one that stuck. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I approach seven years of good health. Many of my friends have not been so lucky.

Friends who had survived breast cancer gave me things before I knew I needed them. Lotion, soft cotton shirts, food, advice. “You’re in the sisterhood,” one said. “You can ask us anything. Nothing is too private.” Despite these kind gestures, I felt estranged. One thing that people don’t talk about much with cancer is how it sets you apart. It casts you under suspicion. You can’t help but feel that you’ve become unreliable in others’ eyes, unlikely to meet your obligations. It’s subtle, but pervasive. Even as friends reached out with loving assistance, I felt that I was in a bell jar, unable to make contact.

Of all the worries that come with serious illness—fear of loss of job, income, health insurance—it was the fear of losing credibility that was most troubling. Fear that family, friends, and colleagues would lose their trust in me. That they would see me as an emblem of sadness, maybe even bad luck. Long ago, in a college psychology class, I was startled to learn that a bee that has lost its capacity to contribute to the normal activity of gathering pollen will be murdered by the hive. I feared I might be that bee.

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