Cancer is Hard, and I'm Not Keeping Quiet

I’m not going to worry that I’m changing my own health by saying out loud that this cancer stuff is hard and scary and kills way too many people every single day.

It’s hard to say something hard. It’s hard to be open about what is difficult in our lives. You say or do the “wrong” thing and people may tell you to shush, to not bring bad things down on yourself.

I think that’s especially true right now, when two-plus years of the pandemic have made us eager to get on with life and, as I frequently see on social media, “manifest that s*#t.”

Is it just Americans who believe that by sheer force of will, we can make what we want to happen actually happen? Can thoughts alone change our destinies?

As someone whose family came to America mostly from Nordic countries, followed by generations in the Midwest, I recognize these ideas. They are our way of life. They aren’t anything new, they just have a different label. They fit in conveniently with our tendency to keep bad stuff to ourselves. They amplify one of the most midwestern phrases: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

I’m now solidly in my eighth year of living with metastatic breast cancer, an unexpected gift of time in this world. This is a gift so big there is no way to express my gratitude other than to live with an awareness that I have been the recipient. I started my life with cancer with one goal in mind: Living long enough to see all my children fully grown. My youngest was then 12 years old.

Did my single-minded focus turn my story into a success (at least in terms of reaching that goal)?

Of course not.

How amazing would it be to have the mental strength that could turn my thoughts into my reality? I’m not talking about mantras like “Smile and the world smiles with you” that are at least a little true — who among us hasn’t smiled and felt a pump of happiness? I’m talking about beliefs and the people who think that it is more helpful for us to deny our experiences (and especially to be quiet about them) than to understand them.

When someone tells me that I wouldn’t be here without having had a positive attitude, I fight to respond with cool control. I want to rattle off the names of friends who should still be here, friends who were lovely, hopeful people. Friends who died despite wanting to live. Friends who died in denial and friends who died having planned out every detail of their death. Friends who died still planning for their next treatment and those who lived well for months in hospice.

I’m not going to worry that I’m changing my own health by saying out loud that this cancer stuff is hard and scary and kills way too many people every single day.

Why would I be quiet about that?

Someone else’s fear is not going to silence me. In my opinion, that’s what all this positive-thinking, manifesting, denialism in illness comes down to: Silencing the people who know.

Instead, I’m taking a page from the friends who look death in the eye, accept that it’s coming for them sooner than they’d like, and keep on living anyway.

I’ve worked hard to be honest with myself because I feel better and more in control that way. It suits me but it may not suit you. I think that being honest about something unpleasant doesn’t make it scarier, it makes it more manageable. Shutting bad things away gives all the power to fear.

Who wants that?

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