A WELL-MEANING PERSON ASKS: “So, have you found life to be more meaningful now that you are a survivor?”
I’ve been asked variations of this question ever since I finished treatment for breast cancer, and my answer has always been some version of the word NO, sometimes with colorful verbiage added to emphasize my indignation. But most people have no idea how much pressure there is to be inspiring after a cancer diagnosis. For my blog I created a persona who could talk back bluntly to the euphemistic ways people skirt the horror of cancer in everyday conversations. Chemobabe as I call her has enough spunk and edge to get smacked down by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and stand back up. She has never shied away from telling people that cancer is horrible.
Perhaps if my initiation into CancerLand had not involved losing somebody dear to me, I may have taken up the mantle and done my best to own the Heroic Survivor story. But I came in to my diagnosis with the rawness of losing my brother, lending me a take no prisoners attitude against cancer. I always wanted to know the goriest details. I had no romance for this experience. My oncologist marveled about me early on in my treatment, “You have no denial mechanism.” So what does all this have to do with two of the most famous cancer patients of our day, Lance Armstrong and Susan G. Komen?
Like my brother, Susan Komen died at a young age. Her sister Nancy Brinker famously promised™ to help put an end to breast cancer. I empathize greatly with the young Nancy. I know firsthand the impotence we feel as we watch somebody we love die. I understand the appeal that her organization holds, particularly for those left behind who want to do something in the wake of so much helplessness. But in becoming a legend, Susan Komen ceased to be a full person. Instead she became a symbol for her sister’s wish. Who knows what Suzy was really like, since her persona has been carefully crafted by her surviving sister. Whatever the truth once was, Susan Komen has become the Noble Patient who gave her sister’s life Greater Purpose.
Then there is Lance Armstrong. Like Susan Komen, he was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. Like Susan Komen, he faced Stage 4 cancer. He not only managed to achieve remission, he became a paragon of health, winning the Tour de France an astonishing seven times. Lance Armstrong became a legend. He beat the unbeatable, the Ultimate Survivor, becoming an inspiration to many who donned yellow bracelets and hoped to be half as lucky as he. Many of these same people felt betrayed this past week as Lance finally admitted to doping to bolster his performance. I was not among them.
Personally, I had long seen the limitation in Lance Armstrong’s story as an exemplar: testicular cancer is one of the few cancers that is reversible at Stage 4. But details like that don’t matter in hagiography. So while I am grateful to Livestrong for drawing attention to survivorship as a phase of cancer with its own needs for medical attention and social support, I am not heartbroken to learn that Lance’s feet are made of clay.
Lance’s legend, like sweet Suzy’s, has put undue burden on plain folks like myself whose path to recovery is neither straightforward, triumphant, or full of Hallmark Channel Movie inspiration. (My friend Xeni wryly calls the saccharine survivor genre “cancer porn.”) Lance, it turns out, is all too real. I am sure Suzy was too. Lord knows her sister Nancy is.
So, Well-Meaning People, here is a fuller answer to your question:
My life was rich before cancer took my brother from everyone who loved him. I had gratitude before I had to go through almost two years of devastating treatments from which I am still experiencing side-effects, social, emotional, financial, and physical. Am I humbled by my friends’ love for me? Absolutely. Have I redoubled my commitments to be there for others in their time of need? Undoubtedly. But, really, Well-Meaning People. This is just a deepening of what already existed for me.
If cancer were eradicated tomorrow, life would still provide plenty of adversity to remind us about what counts.
Breast Cancer Consortium member Ilana (“Lani”) Horn is an Associate Professor of mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her scholarship focuses on everyday learning and developing theoretical frameworks that account for social and emotional as well as psychological dimensions of human cognition. When she became a breast cancer patient in 2009, two years after losing her stepbrother to cancer, she became interested in documenting and analyzing the social and emotional aspects of cancer, treatment, and survivorship. On her blog, chemobabe.com, she writes about issues including caregiving, end of life issues, doctor-patient communication, cultural expectations of patients, with particular interests in implications for young adults and parents with cancer. She hopes to merge her scholarship and advocacy through studies of cancer patients’ learning in the future.