The gift of breast cancer? I’d like a refund.

Today’s post is another piece from Rachel at The Cancer Culture Chronicles who, at her own proud admission, likes a good rant. I’ve also written about the expression ‘cancer is a gift’ and it’s something that’s got Rach fully into ranting. She wrote this piece last November. ‘The gift of breast cancer,’ she says, ‘it doesn’t fit. Can I have a refund?’ For your reading pleasure…

“I would never wish cancer on anyone. But I wouldn’t give back the experience either.”
“You are forced to either look upon the experience as a curse, or a lesson in life/challenge to learn from and grow from. ie., a ‘blessing’!”

“These are real quotes sourced from comments posted to an article written by Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) entitled, The Gift Of Cancer.  That’s right. The. Gift. Of. Cancer.  Gift. Cancer.  Really ?  These are not words that I would ever wish to see in the same sentence. Ever. And yet, I seem to be surrounded by this kind of sentiment.

Are there people out there who actually see cancer as a gift ?  An experience they would never give back ? A blessing ? Are people now drinking the chemo ?

This week I had plenty of opportunity to ponder my own particular gift and associated blessings. As I was injected with another vile vial of radioactive goop by Nurse I-Couldn’t-Hit-A-Vein-If-My-Life-Depended-On-It, so that my entire body could be scanned for more Breastmas-Tree-like lights whilst lying perfectly still in a dirt-nap state in a machine that is strangely reminiscent of lying in a coffin.  (Now, not personally knowing any vampires outside of Sookie and the gang from True Blood, I can’t attest to the accuracy of this statement, but I think the only difference might be that the occupant of said machine has a pulse).  Anyway, before I launch into a dull tirade on the indignities of the whole PET/CT scan thing, let me get back to the point of this post.

From a sociocultural perspective, much of what I see and hear in the media regarding the breast cancer “experience” seems to carry with it an aura of calm, peaceful reflection and contemplation.  One could be forgiven for thinking that breast cancer is simply a journey on a well-trodden path that begins with a test of marathon endurance and ends with tangible feelings of achievement, clarity and purpose for the newly minted heroic Survivor.  In an almost graceful state of being, the triumphant Survivor peels back the veneer of her previous existence to transform into a new and better person filled with wisdom and experiences, feeling eternally grateful and a saintly duty to repay the favors of her life and bestow the gifts of her cancer journey on the world around her. Epiphanic sentiment abounds. Transcendent survivorship seems to be the modus operandi in today’s breast cancer culture.

And maybe this is exactly  how it is for many who have been through the breast cancer “experience”, and I’m not saying that this is wrong.  Everybody has their own reality.  But it is the popular public notion of how a person dealing with breast cancer is imagined to be that I have a problem with. Because when you get to the point where breast cancer is  with you 24/7, with no end-game in sight as far as treatment is concerned,  and the relentless advancing of your disease no matter what you do, the concept of transcendent survivorship is a bitter pill to try and swallow.  In fact, I find it downright alienating.

Gayle Sulik in her recently published tome, Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, expounds on these popular notions of Survivorship and indeed proposes the”feeling rules of breast cancer survivorship” as an overarching social framework within the context of breast cancer culture.  Ms Sulik writes:

“Feeling Rule 1:  Survivorship requires a strong sense of optimism in terms of hope, faith, and transcendence.

Feeling Rule 2: Survivorship necessitates selfishness, which is constructed in masculine terms as a rational coping strategy or as a confession of gender violations related to women’s nurturance and selflessness.
Feeling Rule 3: Guilt results from the stigma associated with failing to present oneself adequately as a she-roic survivor, losing bodily integrity, or disrupting gender roles.”
…….The feeling rules of breast cancer survivorship empower and constrain throughout the breast cancer experience, and within women’s particular circumstances……….the rules contribute to a “balancing act” as women try to carve out their own mode of survivorship and establish equilibrium between their needs and the needs of others.”

Exactly right.  No wonder I feel the way I do.  Honestly, having cancer has left me with nothing but a gnawing sense of what might have been and what definitely won’t be. It has forced me to confront a whole bunch of crap that, quite frankly, I could have done without.  My life was just fine before cancer rudely barged in and now that I’m just living with it and trying to accept that this is just the way it’s going to be,  I certainly don’t feel like I’m transcending and morphing into a higher being.  I’m just getting on with it the best way I know how.

For me at least,  terming any part of the cancer experience as a gift or a blessing just seems plain wrong.  Okay I probably do have a greater appreciation for life’s simple pleasures and I’m certainly a more compassionate and thinking human being, but I don’t see any of this as a gift or a blessing.  A gift is something that makes you feel a bit special and comes without any strings attached.  Cancer takes away so much more than can ever be imagined, and to try and portray this otherwise by putting a positive spin on any part of the experience is what, I believe, is being perpetuated by the pinking of the breast cancer realm.   Isn’t what we go through invalidated by using the words like “gift” and “blessing” in the same sentence as cancer? Describing any part of the experience of cancer with terms such as these, boxes up the truth with a pretty pink ribbon to be neatly filed away under “Positive Life-Affirming Experiences” or something similar.  I don’t care if the experience of breast cancer causes you to morph into the next Mother Theresa, the fact remains that nothing, nada, zilch can ever be enough to compensate for what is lost to breast cancer. It’s an evil curse and I don’t intend to ever see it any other way.

Is it shocking to you in reading this that I sound so angry and bitter ?  Yes ?  Why ?  Because this is the myth of populist “survivorship”.  It is not everybody’s reality.  Doesn’t anger just make me human?     So what does all this mean ?  I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell not going to give up being angry that this happened to me, and I’m sure as hell not going to give up writing about it.  In fact I would say that feeling angry is a good thing.  At least for me.  It feeds the fire.   My people will just have to deal with it.

After all, I am.”

6 thoughts on “The gift of breast cancer? I’d like a refund.

    • We’re always delighted to hear Rachel’s ranting voice round here. Even on quiet days, once Sarah’s computer makes that Skype noise, you hope Rachel’s about to enter the room!

  1. I love this post. Cancer is no gift, no matter how much people want to package it up and market it as such. I not only request a refund, demand one! And I will write and speak about my feelings toward this scourge despite being told by people to stop, to move on with my life. I won’t quit and I know you won’t either. We have to stick together.

  2. Thank you, thank you! I have just discovered this blog and can’t wait to read more. I am trying to find my own voice among all the thoughts I can’t organize in my head. I love this post.

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