How many people with breast cancer are masking their pain behind a brilliant smile? We often feel so much pressure to smile and to be cheerful that if we don’t do so, we are accused of not being a “good cancer patient.”
I read the following via some friends of mine who posted it in their blog. It really nails the point. Written by the mother of a young boy with malignant spinal tumors of unknown origin, this paints a picture of what happens with a cancer diagnosis.
“Ok folks, I’m getting personal.
“Most of the posts on this blog are general mommying messages. Some are funny and light. Most are universal. This one gets more personal – and yet through the personal, I think it will resonate more generally.
“We live in a Cult of Optimism – in our culture, people are peppy and youthful and vibrant. We whiten our teeth and color our hair. We put on flashy clothes and walk into interviews with a “can-do” attitude. All of this is fine… to a point.
“At some point as a parent, we feel weak and frail. At some point, we face tough decisions and times of failure. At some point, we cannot maintain our “happy and fine” attitude. At these times, the Cult of Optimism works against us. Because at these times, we are not optimistic. We are not able to maintain our membership in the Cult.
“Our family has now spent the past year and a half facing an aggressive tumor. Our path is uncertain and our troubles are many. Throughout the ordeal, some people have been incredibly supportive of our need to be melancholy, nervous, or frustrated. Others have drifted away, presumably not comfortable with how to interact with a parent feeling ongoing grief and sadness.
“Having left the Cult of Optimism – temporarily or permanently - we sometimes feel alone. Because those in the Cult of Optimism will ask us “how are you?” but frown if our answer is anything but “fine.” They will not allow us to be sad. They feel uncomfortable with our grief.
“This post is an act. A statement. An invitation to a new twist in parenting: Permission to Grieve. We allow ourselves to be sad and overwhelmed. We relinquish our control and desire to “fix” each other’s dilemmas and instead hold each other’s hands and support each other during our times of weakness. We share, and we cry together. We acknowledge that we have little control in our world, little control over our children. We sympathize that parenting is not always joyful, not always fun, and sometimes downright unfulfilling. And that’s okay. We can be disappointed and grieve together.”
I liken the Cult of Optimism to bullying. Women with breast cancer are often relentlessly bullied. We are told to be cheerful, to never give up, to have courage and hope and to simply believe that we will get well. We are bombarded with the radiant smile so often presented in all those rallies, runs, relays and fund raising events. I read/hear over and over, “Well, I did this and I SURVIVED! So can you!”
Everywhere, we are faced with the most physical symbol of a woman undergoing breast cancer treatments … that of a woman with a bald head. (Let’s not forget that other cancer treatments also result in hair loss … not just breast cancer treatments.) Most of the time, those bald heads are proudly put on display as if losing hair is a badge of honor and is something to be celebrated. Yes, there’s something to be said about overcoming challenges, but what about those women who choose not to exhibit their bald heads? Those who won’t step out of the house without a wig on? Are they left out of the bald celebration? Are they left feeling as if they let the “breast cancer survivor” badge down?
Those with Stage IV metastatic disease don’t know where to fit into the celebratory atmosphere of breast cancer awareness month. To be frank, most of us feel that the name “breast cancer awareness month” is a misnomer. Most people are more than aware of breast cancer, but most people know nothing about the metastatic breast cancer that kills.
Metastatic breast cancer patients may be living very normal lives, but most of us are undergoing treatments that will never have an end date. We will be in treatments for the rest of our lives, however long they may be. While many of us take great joy in every single day we have, many of us are overcome with depression and loneliness. The shadow of death is always present, no matter if it’s large and looming, or just a tiny sliver in the corner.
Bullying an early stage diagnosis patient to “move on” is not helpful either. Side effects from breast cancer treatments can last a lifetime. Lymphedema, scarring issues, premature menopause, bone and joint pain from adjuvant hormonal treatments and fear of recurrence are just a few of the very real impacts of breast cancer in a woman’s life, both during treatments and following treatments for those who are declared no evidence of disease. Post traumatic stress disorder is a known ailment for those who have gone through a serious illness, yet is often not addressed as a part of recovery from breast cancer treatments. Early stage diagnosed women are hard pressed at times to describe what they have gone through and what they are STILL going through, because, if they don't fit into that cheerful image, they are not meeting society's expectations of who a breast cancer patient should be.
Because of the relentless cheerleading aspect of breast cancer, many women don’t feel free to express their fears, anxieties and anger over having this disease. Many feel that once they are diagnosed, they have a pink ribbon membership pin slapped upon them with a “Smile! You can do this! You will survive!” Many don’t know what to say when faced with such reactions.
The Cult of Optimism refuses to admit reality. The reality is, breast cancer sucks. All cancer sucks. It’s time for a cure. It’s time for the brilliant smiles to stop hiding the harshness of the disease and it’s time for us to admit that having breast cancer is nothing to celebrate.