The Dangerous Myth of the Enlightened Cancer Patient

26Oct09

I wrote this for my sister’s blog, The Stacey Report (actually, I guess it’s my blog, about her. And cancer. Sounds like fun, no?)

It’s a reasonable piece, but I’m not quite hitting the lynchpin idea — I’m talking around the feeling is fact/wrong feeling structure but not quite laying it out. Hmmm… hmm. Comments welcome.

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The Dangerous Myth of the Enlightened Cancer Patient

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Well, who can’t get behind THAT, amirite? But have you ever read the rest of the poem? Seriously, check this out:

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;

Yeah, ok…

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace…”

There.  Hold it right there.

Now, head on over to your local cancer fundraiser website. They all say things like “Living life to the fullest!” and have testimonials: “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me: I found out what was really important.” Lots of crying, lots of hugging, lots of beautiful awakenings.

This is good, don’t get me wrong. I am pro anything that makes cancer suck even a little bit less.

But here’s the problem. What if you’re not interested, not even the tiniest little bit, in “accepting hardships as the pathway to peace”. What if you have no clue whatever in the world that might mean, given that there is no inherent causal connection AT ALL between hardship and peace. What if you already know what is important, thank you, and one of those things is hitting back, hitting hard, and hitting below the belt?

What if the very flippin’ LAST thing you want to do is put on a pink feather boa and cry?

What if you’re not grateful?

What if you’re just plain old pissed off?

Prevailing wisdom would have us believe that the best and only acceptable response to a diagnosis of cancer is an emotional journey that leads to acceptance… or something. Again, whatever floats your boat, but the problem is that if you do not respond in that way, people around you are likely to try to make you resond in that way, for your own good. And the problem with THAT is: if you’re having response B, and a whole lot of people express grave concern because really it would be BETTER to have response A… then they’re also saying that your actual organic emotions are the wrong ones to have.

Now let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a girl who might or might not be the daughter of your humble narratress. And this girl inhereted the anxious temperament that ran in her family. This girl was constantly freaking out about one thing or another, dissolving in tears over math homework. The parents of this girl were forever saying brilliant things like “you don’t have to get so upset about this!”

And did that approach help this girl? O, no, it did not. What it did was upset her more, and the parents began to theorize that not only was she feeling inadequate to the task, she was now hearing that feeling upset about feeling inadequate would not help her; on the contrary, getting upset would make things more difficult for her.

Now, I’m not saying that freaking out is a fantastic approach to math homework, but likewise saying “stop feeling that!” is a pretty stupid approach to… well, to anything. The key to helping this girl (who has grown and matured by leaps and bound since then, whether thanks to her parents intervention we may never know) the key was to accept her emotion as fact. And one of the depressingly few things I’ve said that seemed to be helpful to her was this: “You are feeling anxious and upset about this, I know, and your feelings are your feelings. But when you’re hungry, let’s say — do you immediately start chewing on the book you happen to be reading at that moment? On the curtain next to your head? No — you do have to eat something, but you go to the kitchen and choose what you want to eat.”

So it is, I firmly believe, with everything in life: feeling is fact. You might decide to find ways to change the feeling, but that would also be a considered response, right? The initial feeling is fact. If you’re hungry, sure, you might choose a bowl of strawberry pudding with a big puff of whipped cream on top. Stacey does not happen to want strawberry pudding at this moment. If she has a hankering for Tekkamaki with extra wasabe and a side order of Whupass, then I for one will be first in line to take her over to Minado for all she can eat.

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