On Monday, a friend of mine passed away from cancer. I mentioned that to anotherr friend who said, “Oh, she lost the fight.” Although I know she meant well, I was instantly and irrationally angry. She didn’t lose. Cancer took her. It wasn’t her fault…it just was… Of course, I didn’t say anything to my friend. I simply nodded. But it made me think about this idea of fighting cancer. What does that really mean? And what does it mean if someone “loses.”
I am a cancer survivor and a supporter of cancer research. But there are some things about the cancer awareness drive that starts to annoy me. First of all, I love the color pink, but at times I don’t wear it because I feel like it defines me as a breast cancer survivor, and I’m so much more. That goes for the pink ribbons, too.
People buy me pink cancer stuff all the time, and although I buy it at times, too, I often won’t wear it except at cancer benefits or fundraisers like Relay for Life, but that’s about it. And I don’t quite understand why people buy pink cancer trinkets for me. When I see cancer ribbons and jewelry, I am touched by the support. In fact, I love the pink ribbon on the back of my in-laws’ car. But still, I don’t want the pink ribbons on me…unless it’s in support of someone else. I guess what bothers me is that it’s like a sign: “I had cancer.” But the fact that I no longer have cancer, does that mean I beat it? Does that mean that I am somehow stronger or better than my friend who passed away?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, it took a very long time to not blame myself for it. I weighed close to 300 pounds at the time, and being overweight is a cancer risk, but cancer also runs in my family. But still, I kept thinking that I wouldn’t have gotten cancer if I had been thin. I blamed myself so much that my doctor felt the need to tell me, “this is not your fault.”
At the same time as my diagnosis, a thin, fit friend of mine was also diagnosed. Certainly, her weight wasn’t a factor. A few years later, another thin, fit friend was diagnosed. Why did they get cancer? What caused it? Any number of things can cause cancer…just read the latest health articles…it seems that anything we eat or put near our bodies will eventually cause cancer. That blew my theory that cancer only strikes those who are unhealthy or fat. So, did I get cancer because it runs in my family, or did I get it because I was overweight? Who really knows, and who cares. The point is that I had cancer, I underwent treatment, and it was eradicated.
Was I cured because I was strong? Was I cured because I had good doctors? Was I cured because I started eating healthier? Who knows! Really, I was cured because I had one of the most common cancers that exists. Doctors know a lot about it, and treatment methods were well established. So, my chances of recovery were excellent. The chances for my friend’s recovery were not.
We can ask why forever, and I don’t know that we’ll ever have an answer. Of course, there’s a medical reason Sharon died…cancer took over her body and it couldn’t recover. But so many people say to me, “Things happen for a reason,” and although I have said that at times myself, I’m not so sure I believe it 100%. Did my friend’s death have a reason? Did my recovery have a reason? Does cancer have a reason for existing beyond the biological?
We can certainly learn things from cancer…both good and bad…both personal and medical. But are those reasons behind the cancer? I suppose this is why people believe in a higher power. And I know that when I got cancer, I struggled to make sense of it. But at some point I had to admit I would never know why, and I quit trying to find a reason. Instead, I created meaning. I used cancer to get healthy and to live a healthier life. I used it to start writing more and to live my dreams. I used cancer to make close friends and to understand what other people experience. I used it to make my life better.
The point is that sometimes things just happen, and we can choose to find the good in it or not. But we can’t always choose the outcome, and perhaps that is why the phrase “fighting cancer” annoys me so much: it seems to imply that we have a choice to live or die with cancer. It’s as if to say if we fight cancer and do things exactly right, and if we’re strong enough, the cancer dies; and certainly, if we attack the cancerous cells medically, following scientific, proven methods, the cancer cells could die. Even if someone does everything right, the methods don’t always work. But is it that person’s fault? But did that person really lose a fight?
“Attitude is everything” is a a common saying I hear often, and that I often repeat, but is it really? A popular belief is that having a positive attitude can help cure cancer. However, this isn’t really true. The American Cancer Society reports that “there’s no reason to believe that emotions can cause cancer or help it grow.” A 2007 study, in fact, showed that psychotherapy can help a cancer patient with the quality of life, but it does not help in curing cancer. In fact, having a positive attitude could lead to denial and a lack of a potential life-saving action.
It’s this denial that I believe lead to my sister’s death. She had been sick for years: fatigue, pain, and weight loss. Instead of going to the doctor, she managed her pain, slept in a chair so she could breathe more comfortably, and rejoiced when she lost 150 pounds. In the end, she had had breast cancer which spread to her vital organs, and she ultimately passed away. Although I say denial lead to my sister’s death, it is possible that she still could have died from cancer had she been treated earlier. The fact is, we’ll never really know, and we’ll have to live without knowing the answers.
We have to live knowing that sometimes things just happen and no one is at fault. Sometimes, cancer is just too pernicious, and sometimes…things just are the way they are… And honestly, the people who are left behind are the real losers. We lose a friend and a loved one, and the person who has passed away has gained freedom from pain and grief while the rest of us are fighting to survive the loss.