The Unthinkable

[A friend of mine, a mother of two young children, had a serious, scary breast cancer. I asked her to write a post for me about having cancer, so she wrote two. Here's the first one. The second one will go up next Friday. If you'd like to read more from her, check out her blog Dance With The Reaper.]

My friend Moxie asked me to write a guest post on breast cancer for her blog.  I'm unfortunately well qualified, since I am a two-year survivor of Stage IIIC inoperable Grade 3 triple negative invasive
ductal carcinoma of the left breast with involvement of the supraclavicular and inframammary lymph nodes.  If you google that, you will see how bad my prognosis was.  It's better now.  My current
prognosis is that of most breast cancer patients.

Getting a cancer diagnosis plunges you into the certainty of chaos. You can't control whether you get cancer.  The reality is that no one knows why some women get breast cancer and some women don't.  There are some long term epidemiological studies correlating certain risk factors to an increased occurrence of cancer, but you can do all the wrong things and never get cancer, or you can do everything right, as I did, and still get it.  That being said, there are some things you can do to lower your cancer risk.  These are all good ideas anyway, with or without the specter of cancer.

Get enough sleep.  Go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time every day.  It boosts your immune system.  Plus, you look and feel better.

Exercise.  Aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week.  Not only has this been shown to lower your risk of getting many different kinds of cancer, but it also improves your overall
health, mental and physical.

Eat healthy food.  Most importantly, eat plenty of leafy green vegetables and whole grains, and avoid processed foods and hydrogenated fats.  There is a bulletin I picked up in the waiting room at M.D. Anderson that says "People with cancer should not eat trans fats."  I don't think anyone should eat trans fats.

Maintain a healthy weight.  If you do all of the above, this becomes less of a challenge.

Seek inner peace.  Pray.  Sing,  Meditate.  Do whatever works for you to keep the tangles out of your mind.

Do a monthly breast self-exam. I did, and now I can say that I saved my own life.  How empowering is that!

Don't smoke, and don't spend time around people who do.  Seriously.

Drink moderately, or not at all.  There are some compelling studies linking drunkenness to breast cancer.  I personally think that cancer is one of the least likely consequences of habitual overindulgence of alcohol.  Drink less, and if that is a challenge for you, then seek out a support group.

Of course, you can practice all of these healthful habits, like me, and still come down with a case of cancer that generally kills 90% of the women who have it within two years.  But if that happens, you
won't be consumed with regret and guilt over all those Ho-Ho's or Fritos or nicotine, or whatever trash you put into your body.

Recently, a close friend of mine who just finished treatment for ovarian cancer, was over at my house drinking coffee.  "What did I do wrong," she lamented, "What sin did I commit to have this happen to

"Stop thinking like that," I said to her.  "Dogs get cancer.  Horses get cancer.  Sharks, I hear, do not get cancer.  It's nothing you did or didn't do.  It's just bad luck."

We all want to think that we can do, or not do, something to control our lives, but it's a myth, and hanging on to the belief that we can control whether we get cancer by our actions is magical thinking.  The bottom line is:  don't ruin your life worrying about "what if I get cancer."  You probably won't.  You should practice good health habits because it's a good idea.  And, if you do get cancer, it's not your
fault, so don't blame yourself.  It doesn't help.

69 thoughts on “The Unthinkable”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to reading your blog.I had some health problems as a child and teen. Not life threatening, but the kind that was serious enough to set me apart and get me lots of unwanted attention at a time in my life when I just wanted to blend in.
    This is just my experience, but now I tend to get very frustrated with the “you are so brave” line. Even as an adult I might think it, but I almost never say it out loud because each time someone said that I to me heard a door shut. I thought, “No, this sucks and I’m scared and frustrated and now I can’t talk to you about it.”
    I’m just wondering how it translates to an adult in health crisis. Does it end up feeling like being stuck on a pedestal when you need it the least? If I’d had the health issues once my coping mechanisms were more developed I bet the “you’re so brave” line of support would hit the intended mark (you are doing great, I’m impressed, I want to show support but I don’t really know what to say).
    Besides, as an adult you’ve got bigger fish to fry. Most of the logistics of life and health management fell to my parents.

  2. Well said, Brooke. If I might add, people who survive do not do so because they or their families prayed “hard enough” or the “the right way.” And those who die do not do so because God wanted them to or because they are being punished. It’s not their fault, it’s not God’s fault … cancer’s a nasty, ugly bitch who does not discriminate.My beautiful, marvelous, 33-year-old cousin, a mother of 2 toddlers, has a 10-inch scar bisecting her neck, for everyone to see, to prove what a godawful fucker cancer is.
    And yet, she LIVES to fill the world with her beauty and grace. That’s one round cancer LOST — the WIN goes to OUR family.
    I HATE cancer. It makes me ANGRY.

  3. I would like to add, people who survive cancer did not survive because they had a positive attitude or just had enough hope. They got really lucky (or were overdiagnosed).People do not choose to die from cancer, and acting as though people who survived somehow had a part in that surivival is incredibly insulting to those of us who have lost loved ones.
    Also, buying products with pink ribbons doesn’t help.

  4. I write this in no way to fuel the breastfeeding/formula debate, but certain studies have shown that longer term breastfeeding lowers your chance of breast cancer and uterine cancer. To me that has always been the overlooked reason for breastfeeding (if it is possible for you, and I recognize it isn’t for all mothers). Most reasons focus on the health of the baby, but to me this was one of the most compelling reasons to stick with it.

  5. Thank you. I have been reminded lately how scary this is as my mother, after 12 years breast cancer free, is now awaiting the results of a CT scan after a mammogram and then biopsy revealed that it’s back and more vigorous this time. Your discussion on how it just happens whether you do the right things (as my mother did) or not, is so true.

  6. Effing cancer.My MIL was just diagnosed with breast cancer, had surgery and is now about to start chemo. She’s just begun the fight, and it is a fight. I’ve had too many relatives lose the fight, although my 75 year old aunt is my shining example that some people do survive cancer. It’s so true that a person can’t just “fight hard enough” to beat cancer. But everyone who gets it does fight.
    We are hoping that my MIL will be a lucky one.
    I wish we lived closer so that we could be there for her and do more for her. But I’ve gotten great suggestions for being there for her in ways other than physically (sending pictures of the grandkids and drawings by the grandkids and things like that), and we will travel down more often over the next few months. But if anyone else has any ideas for what we can do (keeping in mind, money is tight for us), I’d love to hear!

  7. Thank you for this. My 36-year-old sister just received her breast-cancer diagnosis this past week. She has already had more than her share of fights with neurofibromatosis, and we’re all scared and angry. It does look like she has one of the “better” kinds – it is operable and her doctors are confident. We’re pulling for her, she starts treatment in a couple weeks.I think there is a serious experiential problem with the way medical problems are presented as personal responsibility these days. People get sick – it’s part of the human condition – and when they do they need help. We’ve gone some places as a society that make it hard to be healthy, and those things need fixing so that the burden on individuals is not so great. Some of the well-meaning focus on prevention feeds this to an extent. I hope you keep well, OP, and thank you for sharing your story.

  8. So strange to read this today – today will be the funeral of a dear friend’s husband, who died in his early 40s of liver cancer, just two weeks after his initial diagnosis. He leaves behind two young children. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, it’s just my heart is so full this morning. But I would love any advice anybody has for how to support survivors, the ill, and their children through illness or loss.I second Mrs. Haley. It makes me ANGRY.
    If you’re feeling powerless, there is one small thing you can do that might save someone’s life – sign up for the bone marrow registry: It’s easy and free (you can donate but they don’t make you) – you can fill out a survey online, and then they send you a packet in the mail to swab your cheek. I have another friend whose husband (and father of two young children) will die without a bone marrow transplant. Donating bone marrow is much easier and less painful/invasive than other kinds of organ donation. Please consider signing up.

  9. Moxie, my thoughts are with you and your friend. I don’t have anything profound to say, except that I hope good luck comes your way.I would like to add, IMHO, that difficult, painful experiences do not make you a better person. The “lessons” usually aren’t worth all of the pain. I am sure most people who have survived cancer wish it had never happened at all. I think society should stop trying to put a positive spin on suffering.

  10. @caramama: my main suggestion would be – food! While your MIL in chemo might not have any kind of appetite, having a freezer full of defrostable food might come in very handy. There are sites and services that will mail full frozen meals to people – it can be pricey but also can be a godsend if you’re not close enough to drop by with a casserole. (Omaha steaks does this and they’re having a sale right now.) You can also bring homemade food for her to put in her freezer on a visit.

  11. @caramama, I would say the best gift you can give people is honesty and the freedom to be honest with you. When my dad was fighting cancer, I was so frustrated by all the sugar-coating and people’s reluctance to talk about the realities of what was going on for him. I understand it, but I didn’t find it helpful. Giving people an outlet to talk about how they feel without the talk of “bravery” and “prayer” and other crap I think is what I needed most.My dad lost to cancer and died 4 years ago. It still hurts. And I still hate the euphemisms. “Passed away.” Or, my favourite, “we lost dad” – like we took him shopping at the mall and when it was time to go we couldn’t find him so just left. No, he died. I know, I was there.

  12. Thank you so much for your powerful words about blame. It is so true that our society likes to place blame for ill health. Oh, she has cancer: did she smoke? He has heart disease: is he overweight? You can do everything right and still get sick. It’s the way we work. But then when we get sick, we’re encouraged (by doctors, insurance companies, friends) to look for the ways we’re at fault. It’s a huge burden on sick people. I see it all the time in my husband, who has Crohn’s disease, and even with my own chronic migraines.Also: what MrsHaley said. ANGRY.

  13. @ Erin–I’m with you. I have been in the registry since my sister in law was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2001 and while I don’t relish the idea of the needle in the hip, every time I see a story like that I think, why am I not a match?! Why isn’t someone a match?! Such heartbreak.Re: support. Meals. Fun things for kids. Going through mail. Bring a ton of stamps. Cry too. Or not. Take the lead from your friend. Heart aching for you. Help find appropriate grief groups in your area for kids & mom (I hated “having” to go to one after my mother died, and felt very odd as the rest were women 60+ mourning husbands, but the group helped; cancer centers in your area might know of ones for younger bereaved).
    OP: Thanks for this. My best friend was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer when 16 weeks pregnant–a prognosis similar to yours. She too survived the initial onslaught, with many of the same sensible things you mentioned. She’s fighting it again now that her son is 6 and we are all heartsick that she’s doing it over again.
    Best wishes to you for continued good health and thank you for writing a column that manages to give good advice without preaching or overpromising.

  14. @caramama: I second the suggestion to let your MIL be honest with you. Sometimes this means letting her be angry and irrational. And then forgiving her.I was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago when my (now) oldest son was just eight weeks old. I had just turned 30. I was lucky — and yes, a heck of a lot of survivorship is just plain luck — that despite nearly a year of symptoms, the cancer was still early stage and treatable.
    But. For nearly two years, I was Just. Plain. Angry. And I showed it. I am still grateful to my husband, my parents, and my in-laws who have forgiven me for how I acted during that time.
    P.S. Pink ANYTHING during the month of October still makes me angry, because I interpret it as an attempt to make cancer “cute,” when cancer is anything but. I’m able to keep that anger to myself, though. Mostly. 😉

  15. @Brooke – thank you for that. And I personally would also vote for an end to the “warrior”/”fighter” language. It’s not like my mother didn’t fight hard enough. That’s not what this is about. She died 15 years ago and I don’t need to hear that she “lost the battle”.

  16. I totally agree with the OP about living your life the best you can, without the worry of “what if I get cancer”. It’s nothing anyone did or didn’t do. Aside from a few exceptions, it’s luck. And I agree with Brooke and others that people who beat it are lucky and that’s pretty much all there is to it.But I do have to say… I know that buying the pink stuff doesn’t help directly, but when you do it, money goes to breast cancer research. The more money that goes to research, the greater the chances that strides will be made that save lives. There are many cancers today that are treatable with good survival rates that were not so 50 years ago. We have made progress. Not everyone lives. But lots do, and maybe less would have survived it if I hadn’t bought the pink ribbon and a million other people hadn’t either. I think pink ribbons DO help.
    Tomorrow I’m running in the CIBC Run for the Cure. Its done every year on the same day, in many cities across Canada. I am running for my Aunt, who is currently breast cancer free but wasn’t always.

  17. If you want to give money to a good cause, give the money. Don’t buy stuff from a company that will send a tiny fraction of the money you spent.

  18. Another great reason to make healthy choices is so that if and when illness does strike you, you will be otherwise healthy and strong enough to fight back with everything you’ve got. Eating right, avoiding tobacco, and drinking in moderation may not protect you completely from cancer, but they most likely will protect you from developing diabetes, or heart or lung disease. Dual and triple diagnoses limit treatment options and make it even harder to get through treatment.

  19. @Melba- That’s just not true. Companies can slap that pink ribbon on any product (even ones that are linked to cancer!) without giving any money or disclosing where it goes. It might make you feel like you are making a difference, but the vast majority of time, you aren’t.It’s all marketing.

  20. @Brooke, yes I get that. I’m not out there thinking I’m making a difference because I bought a pink hairbrush. I’m talking about more direct donations… like buying an actual pink ribbon from the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. I cut a cheque directly to the charity and in exchange, they give me a pink ribbon that I stick on my jacket. Or a t-shirt, or ball cap, or whatever. That’s what I’m talking about, not a pink kitchen appliance or box of crackers with a pink ribbon in the corner.I guess I misunderstood what people meant by saying that pink ribbons don’t help. Because I think they do when you know where your money is going.

  21. “And I still hate the euphemisms. “Passed away.” Or, my favourite, “we lost dad” – like we took him shopping at the mall and when it was time to go we couldn’t find him so just left. No, he died. I know, I was there.”Yes! I had a miscarriage (another term I don’t like – I didn’t “mis” carry anything. My baby died.) and I also hate the phrase “lost the baby.” I didn’t forget which closet it was in. It died. (Before we found out the gender, hence the word “it.”) And if one more person had said “You’re young and healthy. You’ll get pregnant again.” Or “Everything happens for a reason.” I was going to strangle someone. Why is it not ok to just be sad and admit that some things just suck. There’s no rhyme or reason or positive spin to put on it. It just sucks.

  22. Thanks, all, for the suggestions. I am close to my MIL, and I definitely feel I could be someone she can be honest with about what’s she’s going through. I’ll call her again today for a chat.My heart goes out to everyone who has had a loved one die from cancer. It effing sucks.
    Those who are dealing with cancer or who have loved ones dealing with it, my heart and best wishes go out to you.
    @MLB – I will rethink my “fight” metaphor. It’s just always seemed to me that my grandfather, uncles and aunts who have had cancer really did fight. It’s tough $hit to go through.
    @MrsHaley – “I HATE cancer. It makes me ANGRY.” Exactly.

  23. @Callie – I actually needed (and sometimes still do need) the euphemisms to get through my miscarriage. But I was totally frustrated by people’s trying to make things better by using those platitudes. Miscarriage does suck.

  24. Dad has prostate cancer. Friend has esophageal cancer. Another friend with breast cancer. And another with colon cancer. This list is WAY too long already.One thing that seems to be very difficult with cancer or any other life threatening disease/condition is understanding what kind of support to give someone. It seems to be so easy to say/do the wrong thing and so hard to understand what the right thing is to say/do. Everything is so PERSONAL. ex. One person can be annoyed by ‘passed away’ as @anon pointed out. But another will be offended by being direct.
    Even though I live with someone who has on-going medical issues and concerns, I know I stick my foot in my mouth sometimes (eg. Me: Well, now that we have our wills done, we can stop thinking about it. DH: Gives me that look of ‘Well, that’s easy for you to say’. Oops. Uh, no. Not so easy for him.).
    And it’s not because I’m not aware or sensitive to what the other person is going through. BUT, at the same time, I’m not going through it. In a way, I’ll never really know what it’s like (unless it happens to me). Other than the obvious, I find this line is so hard to tread. Especially with people you don’t know well, or perhaps don’t know intimately. I think, in general, people do want to be supportive. And they really are not sure what to do or say to show that support. I’m slowly learning, thanks to living with DH and to some very candid conversations with one of the friends above who has cancer.
    But the fact is, we, those who have never had cancer or any other serious medical issues do not really get it on all levels. The relentlessness of it all. And quite frankly, conversely, those of us on the flip side – being the loved ones of the person with cancer or something else – are going through an experience that the affected person may not quite totally understand on all levels either. We’ve all got some talking to do I guess. It’s the only way I can see that people will be more effective with their support, and that people who need the support get it.
    I hope my comment doesn’t come off as ‘poor us, families and friends of people with cancer and terminal illness’, because that’s not my point. It’s not a contest. No one wins. Everyone is suffering their own kind of hell with it’s own particulars.
    It makes my heart break to hear stories like @anonforthis “I tend to get very frustrated with the “you are so brave” line… each time someone said that to me I heard a door shut.”
    We need you to tell us when we say something hurtful, or frustrating, or annoying or discouraging. We really do. And we need you to know that we are trying our best to give you the support you need and want.

  25. @ Callie – I know. From personal experiences I’ve had I know how terrible empty expressions like that are, no matter how well meant they can be. Now I have a strict policy: no trying to comfort someone with words, ever. When terrible things happen there is no comfort, except what comes from being around people who love you & who will listen to you and not try to force you to hide what you feel with euphamisms. One of my favorite quotes of all time in from Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence: “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend.”

  26. Barbara Ehrenreich writes most excellently about what she calls the ‘breast cancer cult’ in her essay “Welcome to Cancerland”. It’s long, but worth the read– touches on some of the themes alluded to here, i.e. the language and euphemisms of cancer and death, the infantilizing pink teddy bears, the notion that shopping can cure cancer and the idea that somehow the ‘survivors’ fought harder or had happier thoughts than those who died and that’s why they lived.
    I think this whole discussion is very pertinent to our society’s obsession with health and living a healthy lifestyle. It’s framed in almost moralistic terms, as though those following a raw food vegan diet are not only purer in body but also morally superior to all those poor, ignorant schlubs out there poisoning themselves with white flour and dairy. Women especially are prone to discussing their diets in terms of “good”, “bad”, “sin” and “guilt”, not least because we are taught from day one that (to paraphrase Jean Kilborne) ‘the good girl is the thin girl; now no one expects the good girl to say no to sex, but she better have the self control to say no to food’. Wound up in all of this is our society’s absolutely phobia of aging and death– as though if we just practice enough yoga and eat enough quinoa, we’ll never get old or sick or wrinkled or dead. There’s even a new eating disorder on the horizon: orthorexia, whose sufferers live in terror of eating anything unhealthy.
    As parents nowadays, we’re supposed to put teaching our kids to live a healthy lifestyle up there with teaching them that murder and stealing is wrong. Left out of the equation is the fact that human bodies are frail and sometimes people just get sick through absolutely no fault of their own. I want my kids to learn good eating and exercise habits and live healthy lives, but I don’t want them to feel like bad, unacceptable people who violated some ethical precept if they gain a few pounds or get asthma or have a disabling injury. Health and healthiness should never be confused with virtue or morality, though unfortunately the media encourages that equivalence incessantly.

  27. I’m riveted by this conversation. Just last weekend my FIL and his wife were in town… they’re both extremely unpleasant. They’re not bigots, or racists or homophobic, they’re just your garden-variety annoying. Very, very annoying. Anyway. My mother recently had a mild heart attack and step-MIL was kind of grilling me about it (“What’s her cholesterol? How’s her eating? Do they know why?”) It was a really weird and awkward conversation, I felt. I kind of fumbled around and finally said, “Well, I guess as you get older sometimes you have a mild heart attack.” (My mom eats well, is active, healthy, etc.) DH and I exchanged notes on this later—he also totally picked up on the sort of off-tone of it—and concluded step-MIL was just trying to identify some reason, any reason, so she could eliminate the idea of it happening to her.The comments here on both being and/or loving a cancer survivor or victim are so illuminating. Like the milliner says, it appears we should all be doing more talking to each other about our experiences as a survivor or bystander. Lately (especially considering the recent family visit, for reasons I won’t go into!) I am thinking about the quality of compassion. Of loving with compassion. Of expressing compassion. There don’t need to be any words to express compassion. It’s a “being-with” that, when I read through these posts, sounds like a beautiful response. This is very timely for me.
    Also, I agree with Brooke that October sometimes feels like “Breast Cancer Celebration Month!”—and the commercialization and marketing of breast cancer seems so crass and insulting that it feels me with disgust.

  28. @brooke, BlueBirdMama, anon and others who chimed in: AMEN and thank you. I feel alone often in my rage against the culture of You Can Beat Death If Only You Try. Harder.We all die, genetics more than just about anything is going to decide the how of that. We probably have some impact on the quality of our health when we’re healthy but once we get sick, so much is out of our hands. Guilting the suffering is so… useless.
    Thank you for this. I feel a bit free-er.

  29. Cancer sucks. I work for a non-profit that fights cancer every day. And the sucky thing to me is, the more progress we make, the more cancer we have. Part of it is because we’re living longer, and part of it is the choices we make or don’t make. But most if it isn’t, because we’re all going to die for some reason. My sweet dad died of lung cancer 6 weeks after his diagnosis 9 years ago. His pragmatism, humility and honestly during that short time helped us all face the fact that he was dying. Because we could talk about his impending death, I think it did help us all. So I agree with PPs that honesty can help. But cancer still sucks.

  30. On a somewhat lighter note, this discussion reminds me of something that happened in college. For a huge lecture on literary theory, our professor was a gorgeous, chainsmoking, erudite Pakistani scholar who was routinely voted the sexiest prof on campus. One day she walked into the hall, cigarette in hand as always, and surveyed the 300 of us with an amused eye. She paused, then said in her oh-so-sexy voice “You Americans! You think if you brush your teeth every day you’re not going to die.” Then she stubbed out her cig, sighed, and went on with her lecture.It’s stuck with me to this day, and I’ve talked to a number of other people that were there and who remember it vividly too. I do think there’s something to what @Rudyinparis says – we are looking for reasons why we’ll be spared. But it seems the opposite of compassion to not recognize that, even if we’re spared this particular harm, none of us will get out of here alive. Not that many of us will live a life without serious illness at some point or another. And if we are so lucky, it probably won’t be because we’re awesome or virtuous.
    Yet it’s terrifying. I must have checked my breasts for lumps 100 times since my sister was diagnosed – there’s the inevitable selfish worry there. But I think realizing that it could happen to any of us is an important part of being real and useful and compassionate, as long as we don’t then focus on self-saving as more important than helping the person going through it.

  31. @ the milliner. When I was sick every single person in my life spent more time being impressed by my resilient facade than seeing how I was really doing. The only thing I can say is try to set the stage to be someone with whom they can be afraid, angry, sad, whatever. If you stick your foot in it, that is okay. In fact that can be the start of a really healing conversation. But I never use the “you’re so brave” line on anyone because I want to leave them space to not be. I try my best to lay the ground work to help them get what they need. If they don’t take me up on it, that is ok. But I know now that hero worship isn’t about the hero as much as it is serving as inspiration for others. And sometimes I just wanted to be a big fat baby about it all. But somehow it felt like it became more about how much inspiration I spread than how I was REALLY doing.

  32. RE: the need to find explanations for why this won’t happen to us (I call this “magical thinking”). . . In some ways I think this tendency speaks to 21st century American culture. We all want to pretend that we won’t die and that terrible things won’t happen to us. But part of me also thinks this can be a deep human impulse. I don’t know if any of you have ever read the graphic novel about the Holocaust called Maus, but there’s a scene where the narrator, the son of survivor, is talking to his therapist about his father’s survival and how his father was so resourceful etc. And the therapist (also a survivor?) says wait a minute, are you saying that the ones who didn’t survive *weren’t* resourceful? Whenever I think about this I see how yes we need to be so mindful of these kinds of reactions and what they imply. But at the same time, the “trying to find a reason” reaction is also a way of dealing with unimaginable horror. We have to believe on some level that there’s a possibility that we might escape. Nobody wants to wake up and say to themselves, oh, maybe I’ll get cancer today. But we have no control over it, so we imagine reasons why it won’t happen to us, and that helps us function. I guess I have some compassion for this reflex because I learned at a young that anything horrible can happen to us at any minute and we can’t control it, and it is a very difficult reality to live with. It can be crippling. And yet of course all this leads to a belief that’s deeply entrenched in our society (conscious and unconscious) that bad things don’t happen to good people, and if something bad happens to someone she must have deserved it somehow. It has to be someone’s *fault*. Or if something bad does happen to you you have to be brave and inspirational and whatever. Somebody was complaining about my friend’s husband taking his anger out on his wife after his diagnosis. I thought yeah okay he shouldn’t take it out on her, but OF COURSE he’s angry, how can he not be angry, he’s going to DIE and he’s only 40. Let him be angry, let him be in denial, let him be whatever he wants to be right now, don’t try to make him be different because it makes *you* uncomfortable.

  33. @Melba- that makes sense. I get so angry about pinkwashing and cause marketing that I forget you can get an actual pink ribbon as an acknowledgment of a direct contribution.You are all such a lovely, articulate, caring group of women. My MIL died 7.5 years ago from breast cancer. It hasn’t stopped being unfair that she’s gone and missing so much.

  34. @Rudyinparis, When I started reading the first part of your post, my immediate thought was that your MIL was searching for a reason, any reason of why it happened to your mother so she could prevent it from happening to her. As my parents age, I see how they are getting more fearful and fragile. It’s hard to see them come off the strong, all-knowing pedestal they were on as my parents, but at the same time I feel like I have a lot more empathy now for people who are aging, what that must mean to them and how it manifests in outward actions.@Julesag, “And the sucky thing to me is, the more progress we make, the more cancer we have.” Argh. I share your frustration. I often get caught in the circle of ‘Is it that we have better tools for finding it (& finding it earlier)? We’re hearing about it more due to unlimited news feeds? It’s happening more due to increased pesticides, etc.? Or is it all of the above?’ I think we’re hard wired to want to achieve progress. And of course, the only thing above that we have any control over is choices we make. And even then, as you and others have pointed out, making the so-called ‘right’ choices don’t necessarily guarantee anything.
    @anonforthis, Thank you so much for your response. I hate that you had that experience when what you needed most was for someone to give you the space to ‘be a big baby’ as you put it. The last thing that you needed to feel, I imagine, was more isolated.
    ITA with the whole ‘You’re so brave’ thing. Quite honestly, I can’t imagine saying that to someone. It’s too loaded for all the things you mention. Really, you put it quite eloquently when you say ‘The only thing I can say is try to set the stage to be someone with whom they can be afraid, angry, sad, whatever.’ I think this is my guiding principal in life in general and I try to leave room for people to process things in their own way. At the same time, there are times when I want to support friends with cancer etc., with words, and it’s a slippery slope. It’s easy, sometimes, to fall in to platitudes even when you’re trying hard not to.
    But yes, I totally agree that the ‘foot in the mouth’ thing can definitely open up a healing conversation. And I agree that sometimes just physically ‘being there’ is all that is required. But if we all stop saying things for fear of saying the wrong thing, where does that get anyone? I guess one extreme or the other is not the ideal.
    @Erin, Obviously I don’t know the details and tone of the conversation about your friend’s husband. But, while I agree that it’s imperative that the person with the diagnosis be able to work through all of the emotions that it brings on, I think it’s not as cut-and-dry as not trying to ‘make him different because it makes *you* uncomfortable.’ This, for me, implies a certain amount of ‘You’re not the one who’s sick so you should be able to deal with all of your partner’s anger, denial etc.’
    I don’t think that the significant other, (who is also going through their own form of denial, anger, etc., as well as usually taking on extra ‘regular life stuff’) needs to bear the brunt of all of this emotion. It’s an awful lot to place on the shoulders of one person. Especially when it comes out in ways that are not so direct. It’s one thing to deal with anger directly about the cancer (‘I effing HATE being sick’) and it’s another to deal with general anger that manifests itself in hurtful ways.
    I’ve seen it happen with my parents. And to a much lesser degree, I’ve experienced it myself with DH. There is SO much grey area. And everything (thoughts, emotions) are so intertwined and convoluted. It’s so hard to sort things out when you’re in the eye of the storm.
    I really think that part of the responsibility of the sick person is to add therapy to their list of treatments. It’s too hard to go through alone (no matter how strong you are), and without guidance/reflection from someone who is not directly affected by your diagnosis.
    Well yeah, can you tell that we just got our wills done today? A few lingering thoughts rattling around in my brain I guess.

  35. interesting discussion, everyone. thank you.the only tiny thing i have to add is please try to refrain from assuming you know how anyone who needs comforting because of horrible stuff feels about god today, this hour, or right this instant, even if they sing in the choir every week (i don’t). it was one of the things that made me so so angry at the people who were trying to be kind when my baby was so sick – the door-shutter, as someone said. it was an instant turn-off for me. likening my baby to an angel when most christian mythology or whatever says angels are manifestations of dead people – not helpful. he’s not dead yet. telling me it’s part of god’s plan? then god’s plan fucking sucks and now i can’t talk to you any more about how scared i am because i’ll end up insulting your god, so you can go home now. oh, and guess what, kindly neighbor? i’m not christian, thanks for assuming. i know they were trying to be comforting, and i tried to hold on to that part, but they were the opposite of comforting and i hated it.

  36. @Marci – hugs. I can see why you’d still have issues about that.I don’t mind being call brave, altho that’s a hoot – I am a total wuss – but my pet peeve is people telling me I am “lickY’ or should be “grateful.” As you say… shut door. But I try really really hard not to take offense at whatever _well meaning_ thing people say, since I know personally how hard it is to say the right thing at the right time.
    My favorite – and this happens all the time – is when people call me a trooper. Because then I get to respond “I am, you know! I stopped 3 people on the highway this morning on the way to work and issued them speeding tickets!”

  37. @Jane — you are right that some studies show that breastfeeding can reduce your risk of getting some kinds of breast cancer. However, if, like me, you have breast cancer, breastfeeding means that your cancer may not be detected until after you wean. I breastfed both of my children for eighteen months each and found out I had advanced cancer a few months after I weaned my youngest child. I urge people to breastfeed for a lot of reasons that are not remotely related to breast cancer, and not muddy the waters with epidemiological studies that may or may not apply to an individual mother’s decision.

  38. enu now has me thinking that the best way to address hair loss would be to buy a trooper’s hat and impersonate an officer.I know that’s ordinarily illegal, but shouldn’t they overlook it when you point out that you’re brave and a fighter and an inspiration to us all?

  39. One of the things that helped me face the gruesomeness of breast cancer treatment was the direct and clear description of what other BC patients went through. It became “speakable” and knowable.I generally have a problem with all the pink stuff and with fundraising runs and walks and ski trips and the like. What is starting to change my mind is how much of the money is being used to support BC patients — especially in paying copays. The American Cancer Society also helps patients get to treatments and take care of their families, so I hold my nose (or say thank you for thinking of me) and donate locally.

  40. @Marci, My DH said the same thing about the use of ‘angel’. When he got sick and needed a heart transplant, his aunts (he has a Catholic background) were all over the ‘you’re an angel’, blah, blah. It really turned him off for the reasons you mentioned – he’s more of the agnostic persuasion and I think also he felt doors close with hearing that. Likening his situation to something divine rather than a harsh reality (and very potential imminent death) he had to deal with.@Enu, Ditto for your comments about ‘lucky’ and ‘grateful’. DH still (almost 15 years after the transplant) is annoyed by this one regularly. Like you, he tries hard not to take offense at an otherwise well-meaning comment. But some days…
    @Slim, re: Trooper hat. Hee. Nice. Perhaps a pink one to not be confused with ‘real’ trooper hats? 😉

  41. You can get enough sleep, eat right, meditate, and still have something shitty happen to you. I haven’t had cancer or have it, I am struggling with the grief of infertility and am days out from an IVF cycle that didn’t work and didn’t produce a single frozen embryo. I know that isn’t cancer but if one more person tells me what to eat I may just react as violently and vehemently as I feel inside. I HATE hearing that what I am doing is creating this despair. I know women who eat shit, don’t exercise, and have multitudes of babies. I eat everything right, exercise, and relax. And has it helped? And it pains me to hear this related to another infliction that is so terrible and devestating. The important element of the original post, to me, is that there is nothing you can or can’t do to prevent your life from suddenly turning to crap. But the people around you can have the empathy and wisdom to support you and not suggest you have, in some way, self-perpetuated your problem. I know this has been written in anger.

  42. @Anonfortoday 12:15 – This conversation also reminded me so much of when I dealt with infertility, so I totally hear you. But also what @djunia says above applies to IF: “One of the things that helped me face the gruesomeness of breast cancer treatment was the direct and clear description of what other BC patients went through. It became “speakable” and knowable.” For IF, this was more about the emotional devestation than the treatments itself that helped me deal. Hopefully, you will be able to find some understanding people to talk to or blogs or message boards to communicate with others going through it. That helped me a lot, cause no one there said “maybe if you just relax…”@Slim, @enu and @themilliner – Pink trooper hats! You guys are cracking me up! I would totally get one for my MIL. She would love it!

  43. Not sure if anyone is making the link with my pseudonym, but ‘milliner’ is hat maker. And yes, I am one.The idea (pink trooper hats) is so crazy & cool that I’m tempted to do it.
    Hmmm…actually, here’s the deal: I’ll do 3 at no cost with a $75+ donation to Young Adult Cancer Canada.
    This organization greatly helped my friend Alston, who participated in the making of this film (you can see him in the trailer):
    Today Alston fell into a coma and most likely has hours to live. It seems most fitting to honour him this way. I know he would think that pink trooper hats is hilarious.
    Anyhow, whoever is interested, e-mail me at suzanne[dot]sixdegrees[at]
    First come, first served.

  44. @ marcie – I am Catholic and I completely hate it when people refer to babies as “little angels” for exactly that reason. My daughter arrived in complex and scary circumstances and she almost was an angel, for real. A big hug to you from me.I just want to say that a very wise woman I know is living, if you call it living, with a debilitating form of stroke that arose from a growth she had since birth that only made itself known when she was 68. It is not cancer, but something very like it. The lesson we have learned from this tragedy that you just never know what you are carrying around, so you had better make the most of today.
    It doesn’t matter whether you drink, or smoke, or drive a car, or eat only organic bananas, sometimes bad things happen, and there is nothing we can do. Our modern obsession with a healthy lifestyle acting as some sort of magical protection against pain and suffering and death is, in my view, misplaced and anxiety provoking – not to mention that it ruins many pleasures in life and causes unremitting guilt, which is in many cases more poisonous than physical illness.

  45. @CG, Thank you for being my editor (or English teacher?!) ;).Alas, the friend in question died yesterday very shortly after I put my little pink trooper hat proposal up here on Ask Moxie. A very sad evening followed, and not too much happier this morning. But I’m pretty sure, as I type this, that he’s heartily laughing at the *concept* of pink trooper hats. In fact, I can even see him wearing one.
    RIP Alston. We miss you already.

  46. @the milliner,I am so very sorry for your loss. I watched the short film and although your friend Alston appeared briefly I was struck by how handsome he was and what a beautiful warm voice he had. I didn’t have the privilege to know him, of course, and I hope this doesn’t sound shallow, but you and all others who loved him must miss him dreadfully.
    On cancer, I stayed out of the discussion as my father died an untimely death due to lung cancer. He did smoke, and in the worst way since he was fourteen. Forty years on the cancer killed him.That was decades ago, I was a child when it happened.
    People can’t help but sound relieved once they hear that he did smoke. It reassures them that they can avoid his fate. Thing is, it was hard luck too. Many of his smoking buddies are still with us.
    Cancer strikes indiscriminately. It’s wonderful that there are so many advances and lives saved. But I still hate cancer.

  47. @ the milliner – I too am very sorry for your loss.FWIW regarding my earlier comments (posted a few days ago), the situation was one in which the people around my friend and her husband were judging the husband’s behavior. Believe me, I’m a huge advocate for support and help for caregivers. Being a caregiver is exceptionally difficult and draining, and they are not supported enough in our society, mostly because people (generally) think that the exclusive focus should be on the sick person. But the shitty thing is happening to *everyone* in the family, not just the person with the diagnosis. I learned this myself the hard way, after I experience a long illness; it took years for me to realize the toll it took on my family and how they suffered during that period. But I never forgot it. So I definitely don’t think caregivers should be punching bags or people with cancer can act however they want. But I do believe that as a society we don’t want people to express negative emotions, whether it’s anger or grief or shame. We want people to be troopers, to be brave, to make it easier for everyone else who is uncomfortable with sickness and death. All I meant was that it needs to be okay for my friend’s husband to be angry, too. As for those with a diagnosis getting therapy, that’s a good idea, especially for people with longish struggles ahead of them. I do think that therapy might have limited help for confronting a diagnosis of imminent death. In my friend’s case, he lived only 3 weeks, so not a lot of time to process.

  48. Thanks for this. Even though I know better, I still feel like I need someone to blame for my husband’s devastating chronic illness. It helps to be reminded that other people have messed up thinking too, and we all need to stop.Although I have to add – effing chemical companies that keep talking about CURES instead of PREVENTION piss me the eff off. OK, all done now.

  49. @Wilhelmina, Thank you for your condolences. Indeed Alston was a very handsome man and he had a great big booming and warm voice (until he all but lost it in the late stages of being sick). I believe one of the eulogies for him in the blogosphere mentioned his ability to at once startle you with his directness, while simultaneously making you feel comfortable and welcome with his warmth. I think that resonated in the tone of his voice.@Erin, Thank you too for your kind words. I pretty much figured that what you explained lastly above was what was behind your first comment. I hope it didn’t sound like I was judging. But I had noticed on my friends blog that his other friends with cancer were very quick to lament the misspoken words of (presumeably) people who loved them. Ugh. It’s not easy on any side of this coin (as you’ve pointed out above). It just seemed / felt like there should be more compassion on both sides. I dunno.
    Anyhow, agreed that the priorities when death is imminent can change greatly.
    And on the negative emotions, this drives me nuts too. As we all know, this spills over into everything, including parenting. And I’m all with letting the emotions go through and out. They can’t go anywhere inside.

  50. I dont see Anime films working really, like they did a live action Gundam movie and I don’t remember that being good, in fact, I barely remember it and nobody ever talks about it so it couldn’tve been all that good.

  51. I’ve been thinking a lot about this thread, and my friends who are grieving, and it made me think of this line from CS Lewis’s beautiful “A grief observed”: “. . .there is nothing we can do with suffering except suffer through it.” On first glance it can seem kind of bleak, but I find this kind of talk comforting, because it’s real, because it strips through all the euphamisms, and also it posits suffering like grief as a process, a journey, something that doesn’t end in a week or two but can take years, even decades, and sometimes never goes away. When I was going through the loss of a deeply loved person, I remember thinking “Grief is a bottomless pit.” It’s not a great metaphor, but it expressed to me what I was experiencing in the sense that I kept sort of expecting it to end and it just didn’t.

  52. Thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to reading your blog.My uncle is suffering from cancer.Doctor has told him that this is initial state.I will suggest him to take proper step as mentioned in your blog.I hope he will be fine very soon.

  53. It is such a best and good post. Drinking lots of water is such a beneficial and good for health. If you have ‘t time to take lunch then better to eat any liquid foods, it will helps to maintain health full day.

  54. To me that has always been the overlooked reason for breastfeeding. Most reasons focus on the health of the infant, but to me this was one of the most compelling reasons to stick with it.

  55. Moxie, you and your friend are always been a well and my thoughts with you. Good luck comes your way to say that there is nothing other than hope, deeply. IMHO, it is difficult, painful experience, you do not want to add to a better person. “Lessons” is usually all the pain is not. I’m sure most people would love it never has never happened in life to cancer. Stop trying to put a positive spin on the suffering of the community.

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