June 13, 2011

the myth of the 'good cancer'

i hear this all the time...'oh, you had hodgkin's? that's the good cancer', or 'that's a good cancer to have if you have to get cancer'. sure, hodgkin's is very treatable, and in many cases it's curable...but does that make it a 'good cancer'? if you ask me, there is no good cancer.

how do we define 'good cancer'? by those that can be cured? easily treated? removed surgically? i can only speak from my own experience, and draw from the experiences of warriors and survivors i've worked with - but, i'd say that no cancer is good. in my case, chasing a cure meant seven months of chemotherapy treatments every other week followed by three and a half weeks of daily radiation. i lost my hair, i got really sick, i chose to have treatments at twenty four that will certainley impact my life in the long term - if i'm lucky enough to get there. and, sure, i did well...but i personally know people who haven't responded to treatment and gone on to a stem cell transplant, and i also know people who haven't responded to the transplant and are living from clinical trial to clinical trial...and those who have passed away. so, no, i don't think this is a good cancer...not even a little bit.

and what about the emotional aspect? forget the physical curability of the disease. i don't know anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer (good cancer or bad cancer) who doesn't struggle with the emotional burden of the illness. the 'what if' every time we have an ache, pain or even the most mild night sweat. the constant nagging in the back of our minds for the rest of our life that we won't live forever. once you face cancer, you face death...and you can't come back from that, you're never, ever the same.

really, i think what gets forgotten in this myth of the 'good cancers' are the patients. in the day to day oncology world it's easy to think that someone with a curable cancer is better off than someone with a terminal, metastatic cancer. and, sure, in terms of prognosis there's a definite difference...but who's to say that either patient is 'better off'? i have a brilliant professor and mentor who said 'it's not the event, it's the experience'...meaning, the way each individual experiences a traumatic event has nothing to do with the event itself, but it has everything to do with how that individual uniquely experiences the event. it's our responsibility as professionals, friends, caregivers and fellow survivors to treat each person as an individual. let that individual tell you how they feel about their situation, and don't let the diagnosis or the stage of their cancer on their chart determine how you perceive their situation.

telling someone they have a 'good cancer' effectively invalidates their entire experience. you leave that person thinking 'well if i have a 'good cancer', my fear must be irrational' or 'they think i'm making this up', or 'i should be grateful'. none of those things are true. our experiences are honest, and are to be validated for what they are. try to remember that regardless of what our perception is from the outside, each individual with a cancer diagnosis is facing one of their worst nightmares (if not their worst nightmare). each situation is a trauma, and each warrior deserves to be validated and allowed to feel whatever they are feeling.

but, always have hope...if someone has a curable cancer, don't be afraid to use the word cure. don't be afraid to tell them you're hopeful. but, don't let that distract you from recognizing and validating the terrible, ugly and scary experience that the individual in front of you is having. and, please, don't ever tell anyone they have the 'good cancer' again.

June 10, 2011


as most of you who read this blog know, i started my master's in social work shortly following the end of my treatment. now being over a year out from the end of treatment and having a full year of my program under my belt i'm experiencing an identity shift. my cancer survivor identity is no longer my most salient identity, instead, it's slowing becoming integrated with my social work identity.... and, as i'm focusing all my efforts on oncology social work, it feels like a wonderful balance. i will never, ever let my survivor identity fade, but it's important to me moving forward to also allow my other identities their time in the spotlight. my survivor identity gives me motivation, drive, energy and a love and appreciation for life that i've never had. it makes me refuse to settle for anything...it allows me to brush off the small things in a way i never could...and, it gives me and my work purpose.

but, i think my shift in identity is why i've had trouble writing here. my survivor identity is now integrated into a new chapter in my life - one where cancer isn't the main event (and i hope it stays that way). but, writing here is important for me...and i like to think it's important for others. i saw a brilliant speaker who was also a social worker/cancer survivor and she described herself as having a 'pathological need to help others'...ah, perfect, i'm not alone. this blog is important and therapeutic for me, but my life isn't about me...it's about giving to others and learning in the process.

so, while i will continue to post here...i will focus my blog now on short little bits about life as a survivor, social worker and tireless advocate for everyone else touched by cancer. i'm intentionally not creating a new blog because i think it's important to integrate my personal history as a cancer warrior with my future. i don't hide it in practice, and i won't hide it here. it's part of who i am, and i'm darn proud of it. that said, when i have medical updates or anything comes up in my personal journey i will make sure i let you all know.

i also need to say 'thank you' to everyone who has read this blog, who will read this blog, and those of you who leave comments or send messages. there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that by writing about my own experience i've given something to someone else. you are all wonderful and i look forward to continuing to share my new and exciting journey with you...whatever that ends up looking like.