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Musings from a breast cancer survivor; why I hated being called “strong” and “inspiring”.

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, as I was 2 years ago, your life immediately changes in a thousand ways. Some of those changes are huge and blatant. Some are subtle and almost imperceptible. One unexpected and unwelcome shift that happens is the language people use towards you. You start consistently hearing words like “brave”, “strong” and “inspiring”, sometimes even before you have actually done anything. 

I for one, hated it. 

It has taken me a long time to figure out why those words made me cringe so badly. I’m still reflecting on it now as I search for the words to write it down. You know that people mean well and have nothing but good intentions. They are encouraging and supporting you in the best way they know how, and I am eternally grateful to them for it. I was reluctant to write this article because I don’t want to put a stop to that. I don’t want to scare people into thinking that they shouldn’t say anything at all to the person close to them who is fighting cancer. But I do think it is important to address this issue as I know that, as with most things, there are countless others who feel the same way. 

So why is it that these words fit so uncomfortably?

Well, there are a few reasons. The discomfort is a subconscious, multifaceted response. The human mind is complex beyond what most of us can comprehend, and cancer has a way of instigating surprising thought processes. 

These are the things I can now identify as the reasons for such an adverse reaction to something that is on the surface so well meaning.

It emphasizes how much things are changing. 

One of the things I noticed as soon as I told people about my diagnosis was the way people behaved around me. Almost everyone from family and friends, to neighbours, to medical professionals suddenly spoke to me softly. Their brows furrowed, their heads infuriatingly tilted, their eyes poorly concealing their horror. People would tell me how brave l was. But all I could hear, loud and clear, was pity. And it terrified me. It cemented the reality that I might be dying.

You have an initial resistance to the news you have cancer, a denial I suppose. That vision of life as you know it is getting smaller and smaller, and you just want to believe that it will go on as normal. So people behaving abnormally around you, however well intentioned, can reinforce the enormity of your situation.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

It contributes to loss of identity. 

A huge thing that you face when you have a long journey fighting cancer, especially when Chemotherapy is involved, is a loss of identity. Suddenly your life revolves around appointments and treatments. You might have an ugly port in your chest. Chemo makes your hair fall out and you become swollen and bloated from the steroids that are given alongside it. Surgery leaves you with scars and possibly minus your breasts. You put on weight, your period stops (if you are young enough to still be having them) and your bones ache. You don’t feel or look like yourself any more. 

That sense of not recognising yourself starts the moment you are diagnosed, and goes a lot deeper than what you see in the mirror. I couldn’t understand why people kept saying I was inspiring. Just because I had been diagnosed with cancer. It can feel trite. Almost disingenuous. Of course it is never meant with any malice. You are just facing something that is unimaginable to people that have never experienced it before. 

But when people suddenly look at you so differently, it’s almost as if they don’t see you at all anymore. They see the cancer. You become the face of cancer, when you just want to be you.

It’s not a choice

Oddly enough, being called “strong” and “inspiring” can leave you feeling like a complete phony. I sometimes wanted to shout “I don’t actually have a choice in this!”

People see you going through treatment and wonder how you find the inner strength to do it. You turn up for those chemo infusions despite the fear. But the cold fact is, if you didn’t you would die. 

There is no real choice, and if there was you would run a mile from it. Who wouldn’t?! You’re just doing what you have to do. And you know that it’s what anyone else would have to do in the same situation. I love this analogy for what it is like to face a cancer diagnosis.

One day, you’re minding your own business, you open the fridge to get some breakfast, and OH MY GOD THERE’S A MOUNTAIN LION IN YOUR FRIDGE.

Wait, what? How? Why is there a mountain lion in your fridge? NO TIME TO EXPLAIN. RUN! THE MOUNTAIN LION WILL KILL YOU! UNLESS YOU FIND SOMETHING EVEN MORE FEROCIOUS TO KILL IT FIRST!

So you take off running, and the mountain lion is right behind you. You know the only thing that can kill a mountain lion is a bear, and the only bear is on top of the mountain, so you better find that bear. You start running up the mountain in hopes of finding the bear. Your friends desperately want to help, but they are powerless against mountain lions, as mountain lions are godless killing machines. But they really want to help, so they’re cheering you on and bringing you paper cups of water and orange slices as you run up the mountain and yelling at the mountain lion – “GET LOST, MOUNTAIN LION, NO ONE LIKES YOU” – and you really appreciate the support, but the mountain lion is still coming.

Also, for some reason, there’s someone in the crowd who’s yelling “that’s not really a mountain lion, it’s a puma” and another person yelling “I read that mountain lions are allergic to kale, have you tried rubbing kale on it?”

As you’re running up the mountain, you see other people fleeing their own mountain lions. Some of the mountain lions seem comparatively wimpy – they’re half grown and only have three legs or whatever, and you think to yourself – why couldn’t I have gotten one of those mountain lions? But then you look over at the people who are fleeing mountain lions the size of a monster truck with huge prehistoric saber fangs, and you feel like an ******* for even thinking that – and besides, who in their right mind would want to fight a mountain lion, even a three-legged one?

Finally, the person closest to you, whose job it is to take care of you – maybe a parent or sibling or best friend or, in my case, my husband – comes barging out of the woods and jumps on the mountain lion, whaling on it and screaming “GODDAMMIT MOUNTAIN LION, STOP TRYING TO EAT MY WIFE,” and the mountain lion punches your husband right in the face. Now your husband (or whatever) is rolling around on the ground clutching his nose, and he’s bought you some time, but you still need to get to the top of the mountain.

Eventually you reach the top, finally, and the bear is there. Waiting. For both of you. You rush right up to the bear, and the bear rushes the mountain lion, but the bear has to go through you to get to the mountain lion, and in doing so, the bear TOTALLY KICKS YOUR ***, but not before it also punches your husband in the face. And your husband is now staggering around with a black eye and bloody nose, and saying “can I get some help, I’ve been punched in the face by two apex predators and I think my nose is broken,” and all you can say is “I’M KIND OF BUSY IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED I’M FIGHTING A MOUNTAIN LION.”

Then, IF YOU ARE LUCKY, the bear leaps on the mountain lion and they are locked in epic battle until finally the two of them roll off a cliff edge together, and the mountain lion is dead.

Maybe. You’re not sure – it fell off the cliff, but mountain lions are crafty. It could come back at any moment.

And all your friends come running up to you and say “that was amazing! You’re so brave, we’re so proud of you! You didn’t die! That must be a huge relief!”

Meanwhile, you blew out both your knees, you’re having an asthma attack, you twisted your ankle, and also you have been mauled by a bear. And everyone says “boy, you must be excited to walk down the mountain!” And all you can think as you stagger to your feet is “**** this mountain, I never wanted to climb it in the first place.”

You don’t want to be strong.

Some days, you don’t want to be strong. You don’t feel strong. And everyone admiring your perceived bravery, while encouraging, isn’t always helpful. Rewarding putting on a brave face during such a hard time is a narrative that needs to change. What about the days when I was in complete despair, when I cried on my partners shoulder or collapsed into depression. Was I weak and uninspiring on those days? 

Of course not. When the cancer bomb is dropped on you you are going to feel fear, pain, anxiety, depression. You are going to cry and feel sad and angry. That doesn’t mean you are weak, just that you are human. Courage doesn’t mean you are not afraid. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings as part of the healing process. To not pressure people into hiding those real and natural parts of their experience. 

When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending

Brene Brown.

You don’t realise how strong you are being.

I can honestly say that it is only now that I am finished with treatment and out of the cancer haze, that I’m truly proud of myself. I got through it as best I could and made sure my baby girl never suffered because of it. But it’s only in the aftermath that I can look back and marvel at the courage it took. I know now that fighting a war without having any choice about it is what makes you brave.

When people call me strong and inspiring now, I believe them. At the time though, I was just doing what needed to be done.

What can you say instead?

If you are the friend or loved one of someone who is facing cancer, you might be wondering what you can say to them. This can seem undeniably tricky to navigate. There’s a fine line between pity and toxic positivity, which is dismissive and negligent. But that line is the key. On that line there is encouragement, support, acknowledgement and love.

Instead of saying they are “brave”, “strong” or “inspiring”,  try saying things like “I know you’re overwhelmed and in pain,” “this sucks but keep going,” “what can I do to help,” “ I’m so proud of you”. 

Lose the head tilt, and above all listen to your loved one. Let them guide you. Don’t be afraid to literally ask them what they need from you. Sometimes it is as simple as to just treat them completely normally. That’s not to say ignore the fact that they have cancer of course, neither of you need that elephant in the room. But don’t treat them like they’re going to die. Talk to them about other things as well. Be yourself and make them laugh. 

Tell them your own problems, however insignificant they might seem in comparison. Your friend will be grateful not to be thinking of their own for a change. It will feel good to them to be able to dish out support and advice instead of being the one needing it. 

Invite them to do the fun things you would normally do together that might take their mind off of their diagnosis. Even if they can’t do it, they will appreciate still being included. 

That person you know is still just the person you always knew. There’s no need to feel awkward or tongue tied in their presence. They’re just going through a really tough time and need you to stand by them, honest and raw, good days and bad.

If you enjoyed this article you might also be interested in:

To read my full story, honest, hopeful and in detail, my book Growing is now available.

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