I have had variations on the following conversation ever since I finished treatment:
I know this does not make me popular. I know some of you reading this find me coarse and unnecessarily harsh.
But you how no idea how much pressure there is to be inspiring after cancer.
Perhaps if my initiation into CancerLand had not involved losing somebody dear to me, I may have taken up this 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 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.
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 Susie was really like, since her persona has been carefully crafted by her surviving sister. (Twitter is haunted by a ghost who begs to differ with Nancy’s account of her love of pink and shopping).
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 his 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 Susie’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 Susie was too. Lord knows her sister Nancy is.
So, Well-Meaning People, this is the 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.
Tags: advocacy, attitude, changes, coping, daily life, essay, gratitude, healthy people, identity loss, Lance Armstrong, mental health, self-advocacy, straight talk
Posted in Survivorship | 19 Comments »