You might have noticed by now that I am, on some basic level, greatly offended anytime I get the impression that someone is trying to tell me how I should be feeling. I don’t know when this mindset became mine. Even now it seems I’m always battling the, “But this is how I’m supposed to feel,” issues in my life (hello–Postpartum Depression anyone?), but I know that during and after my Mom’s fight with Lung Cancer, I struggled with it all a lot.
Someone posted this transcript on the Lung Cancer board that I still participate on: Positive Thinking Does Not Help Fight Cancer. Now, we have some incredibly positive people over there. At LCSC Hope almost always gets the last word. Immediately the question was raised, “What’s this study matter? I don’t have anything to LOSE by being positive. I can only gain that way.” I see this line of thinking, and I agree! I really do! But I guess I say, “This news isn’t for you then. Obviously you’ve got the positive attitude.”
This study IS good news for those who don’t always land in a ‘positive thinking frame of mind’ naturally. This message to always be positive brings with it an unspoken message: If your treatment fails, if the cancer gets the upper hand, you didn’t fight hard enough. You weren’t positive enough. You weren’t as great as a warrior if your battle against cancer lasted only 3 months, as the guy whose went on to live another 30 years. It’s another game of ‘blame the patient.’
One reason this all hits so close to home for me (aside from my own personal struggles with ‘how I should be feeling’ messages), is the emotions I was left to deal with after my Mom’s very short battle with Lung Cancer.
When my Mom was diagnosed I told her, “Mama… You are meaner than this cancer. You can beat this.” I didn’t understand it then, but she looked at me a little bit bewildered and said, “Everybody keeps saying that. I don’t understand that. I don’t FEEL courageous. I don’t FEEL brave.” Early in her journey I can remember wanting to ‘infuse her with hope’ and ‘help her to see how many things she had to live for.’ What I failed to see, what I failed to have compassion toward Mom in during those moments, was where she was at. She was scared shitless. She was in pain. Her body was being taken over by a monster that she couldn’t control no matter how much gumption she had or how many positive thinking mantras she repeated to herself.
After she died only 8 months after diagnosis, the battle terminology always got to me. I would hear someone congratulate a long term survivor by saying, “You’re such a warrior!” And I would think–My Mama was a FIGHTER. Did she not fight hard enough? Was she NOT a warrior?
And then it dawned on me. The men who died in the first minutes of Normandy weren’t any less warriors than those who fought that day and went on to survive til the end of World War II. They were simply in a battle so big, and so brutal that it was inevitable that it would end in tragedy for some.
My mother was no less a warrior than the person who beats cancer for 2 years or 4 or 20. She was just hit with a demon of a disease that moved too quickly and too fiercely for any amount of positive thinking to sway.
So I guess the bottom line is, whenever you encounter a person with cancer, be careful with your language. It’s true, there is NOTHING to lose with positive thinking, as long as it’s not forced stoicism. In a battle as all consuming as cancer, a person needs permission to simply be where they are.
And in the larger sense, we all need that. We’re all fighting our own battles day in and day out. Some are huge, some aren’t so big. But we’re not always going to be able to paste on a smile and trudge through the sewage with smiles on our faces. Sometimes, we’re going to need to crumple up and cry. We ALL need permission to simply be where we are. To feel what we feel. And to know that our problems are not always a direct result of our lack of positivity in a given moment.
We are where we are, and sometimes that’s where we need to be.