Flipping The Script

March 19, 2020
Martha Carlson
Martha Carlson
Martha Carlson

Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.

A friend's call to list all the good things people without cancer have done for those with cancer brings an unexpected rush of hope and happiness.

There's an online bingo card for people with cancer that makes me laugh every time I see it. I read over each square and consider the friends, family and random strangers on the street who've offered unhelpful advice, "ghosted" me or just made statements that hurt me while making themselves feel better. The truth is that, except on rare occasions, I'm used to receiving pity stares, being told I should go vegan, or fast, or exercise more, or cut out wine, and sugar, and on and on.

Most of the time I inwardly roll my eyes. Once in a while, I point out why what they're saying or doing is just not right or kind.

It's easy to get stuck on all the things people do wrong when they're confronted by someone with cancer. In the midst of my thinking about this bingo card, which has again been making the rounds on Twitter, a social media friend popped in with a "Let's turn this around!" and asked for people who'd experienced cancer, regardless of stage or type, to tell her all the good things people-without-cancer had done.

I responded right away with a somewhat lengthy list that included transportation, kid watching, dinners delivered, dates and plans made that suited my mood and energy. I had, and have, many friends, acquaintances and family who acted with unexpected kindness countless times during the toughest period of my life. There were those who were practical - dinners and transportation - and those whose gifts were more psychological like a vase of garden flowers or an hour of listening.

All of it mattered.

All of it gave me hope.

I'm grateful that my friend on Twitter received so many replies. Living with cancer and its ongoing aftereffects can be hard and because of that, there are times when it is the easiest thing in the world to believe no one can understand.

"Turning it around" was already on my mind because my mom, who had breast cancer nearly two decades ago, recently had to wait for test results that put the idea of "scanxiety" into sharp focus for her. She told me her thought was, "This is what Martha has to go through all of the time." It is what I go through, and honestly, scanxiety is awful for me — almost every single time because of the lack of control and the unknown. But when she made that comment, I immediately thought about all the ways I've learned to live with this anxiety and to accept that my life is "now" regardless of what test results say.

I'm not pushing rose-colored glasses or false positivity because cancer is awful and there's no getting around that. Yet it is okay to make the best of the life you have; it is okay to know that your friends haven't been perfect but most of them have done their best. This is what I want anyone to think of me, and I want to hold onto the grace to remember that.


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