Could you...um...back off with the advice?
©Aaron Amat / Adobe Stock
I woke up sore, scared and hungry the morning after my lumpectomy. The procedure had been a disappointment. I was supposed to go in, have the lump removed and then take a few shots of radiation. By the start of spring term, I’d be back in the classroom. But when I’d come out of the surgery the previous afternoon, the long incision under my left arm had told me the doctor had removed lymph nodes — a sign cancer had spread.
My first reaction had been to swear so loudly that the nurse ran for the doctor. My mood hadn’t improved any in the hours since.
Although in despair, I was starving, and even hospital pancakes sounded good. As I waited for breakfast to arrive, an older woman barged into my room carrying a large bag crammed full of papers.
The visit of the cancer lady
“Hi, I’m Maggie, the Cancer Lady!” she chirped as she reached out her free hand.
I took it reluctantly. I wasn’t a morning person, even when I wasn’t in fear for my life. Plus, I looked and smelled a bit like roadkill. I was in no way company-ready.
“Well, I understand that you have just had a lumpectomy. How are you feeling? Do you have any questions?”
“I’m okay, and no.” I was too grumpy to be polite. I just wanted her to leave.
“Well, I’m here to give you all the information that you need,” she said as she reached into her bag.
I raised my hand to stop her. “I do my own research. Believe me.”
She charged on, “Here’s a book with all the phone numbers to resources that you will need. Here’s another pamphlet that will explain your treatment options. Oh, here’s a list of support groups. Are you in a support group already?” She finally paused.
“I have friends. I’m not really a joiner.”
“Oh, you’ll need a support group. You can’t go through this alone.”
Just then, an aide delivered my breakfast. I nearly cried with relief. Surely the Cancer Lady would leave.
She didn’t. “Here is the pink quilt that the local ladies sew for cancer patients. Also, here’s a pink ribbon and pink tote bag. Solidarity, you know. Now let’s talk about the next steps.”
For a cancer support person, she had abysmal listening skills. I sighed. She sat down. It was too early for my family to visit, so I wasn’t going to be rescued. My stomach growled, and I thought, “Screw it.” I took the cover off my rapidly cooling pancakes and put on the butter and syrup.
“Oh,” she said. “Go ahead and eat while I talk.”
Maybe no one will notice if I stab her
I considered stabbing her with a fork. I could claim extreme emotional distress as my defense.
She talked. I chewed. She talked some more. I chewed some more. In fact, my chewing became more aggressive. I think I was growling as the cold pancake mash moved down my throat. She was oblivious.
“Again, you need to consider a support group. You can’t go through this without help. We are all here to give you that help.”
I didn’t scream. I didn’t point out she was the opposite of help. That her presence was making me miserable. I did say firmly, “I’ll take care of it.”
At last, she got the drift. This cancer patient wasn’t going to behave the way the Cancer Lady expected. She straightened a bit, stared at me and said triumphantly, “Remember, you will always be a cancer patient.” Then she walked out.
What the Cancer Lady did to me was wrong on many levels. She was rude, condescending and stubborn. But her words bothered me the most.
Not all breast cancer survivors want to wear pink ribbons
Would I always be a cancer survivor? Was that to be my new identity? In the space of a few weeks, I was no longer Beth but the product of a medical condition. Before the illness, I didn’t like clubs, but after the diagnosis, I was supposed to be a joiner. Before, I rarely wore pink. After, people would try to cover me in all shades of the color. Beth before wore black. Beth after was supposed to dress like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
Of course, having a lumpectomy and cancer changes a person, but I suspect that can be said of any critical illness. All hardships change people, but most aren’t identified by them. There goes Jim, and he’s a heart attack survivor. Hey, Betty over there, she’s stroke person. Meet thrice-divorced Shona.
Once I had cancer, some people felt they owned a part of me, which drove me mad. The other time in my life this happened was when I was pregnant. Strangers would touch me. Clothing stores tried to make me wear bunnies on my shirts. I wasn’t supposed to be me.
If you want to help cancer patients, don’t dictate what we need. We don’t lose our individuality just because we have a condition in common. We can survive cancer without becoming perpetual “cancer survivors.”
Some people will benefit from quilts and ribbons and support groups. Others will do better if they can just eat their pancakes in peace. Not all breast cancer survivors want to wear pink ribbons.