Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
The cancer experience is different for all of us that is sometimes easy to navigate and sometimes not at all. Yet we all join the same team once we hear the words “you have cancer.” We can help each other to cope.
I am not the most competitive person you will ever meet. For example, as a soccer mom, I was the one standing on the sidelines with some version of this pep talk: “Somebody will win, and somebody will lose; just do your best and enjoy the game.”
Then I got cancer, which conditioned a different side of my personality. I became a little more competitive. I would beat the odds, I believed, competing not with others — not really — but with cancer cells and statistics. Becoming more competitive, though, came at a cost to my humility. Even though cancer is not a horse race, or a cross-country meet, I found myself looking over my shoulder at other contenders.
Was my cancer not bigger, faster? Was her cancer somewhat slower? Was his cancer more statistically interesting? Was her cancer not commonplace? Was she, with stage 4, a true champion? This attitude seemed simultaneously logical and disconcerting. When I entertained the notion that women with stage 0 breast cancer are in a completely different league, I knew something had to give.
How hypocritical could I be? I began with a stage 0 diagnosis only to end up with a more complicated diagnosis. Cancer is fickle. Somebody on the sidelines one day can be a starter the next. How could I, knowing that, end up a cancer snob? I certainly could not continue as one. But I did until my own son blew the whistle.
“Don’t worry,” I said to my son recently, sharing news about a family friend who had been surprised by cancer. “It’s just skin cancer.”
You could say that dismissing the cancer as “just skin cancer” was a way to assuage my own fears about this friend’s diagnosis. Even so, what I said was condescending, my son pointed out. He was right.“Wait a minute!” I thought. “Cancer is the uncontrolled and sometimes uncontrollable division of cells that have gone awry; it is not a competition. Truly, there should be no competition among us. It is all good, as they say, or all bad.”
Some cancers can be lopped off, never to be heard from again. Other cancers can be exiled, their cells maybe or maybe not lingering in the body, ready to return to infiltrate another part of the body. Then again, there are cancers that never leave a person, the cancers that some people coexist with for years or months or days, the cancers that become as much a part of a person’s body as eyebrows or noses or a uniform. There are the cancers that kill.
Even as I wonder why the word “cancer” covers so many bases, I have had to remind myself that any diagnosis is disconcerting. “You have cancer” is never a pleasant thing to hear, even if it is a cancerous growth that can be removed with a minimal rate of return. Cancer is scary. When a surgeon has to treat a cancerous growth — however small or large, however curable or not — a life changes.
Our varied experiences with cancer can help others cope. Just as friends with varied prognoses have coached me, I can help others. By advising my friend with skin cancer, who consoled me when I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, I am reclaiming my humility and seeing more connections.
Cancer does not discriminate. Why should I? Everybody diagnosed with cancer is entitled to join the team. It serves no purpose to downplay the experiences of those who are more easily cured or to rate their cancers as if they have less of a right to call themselves survivors.