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.


  1. Grace, I like this post and the message. I plan to republish it on Monday 1 August as a Guest Post at Being Cancer Network. I will include two links to your site as well as a link to the original post. You should see an increase in traffic. Keep up the great work!
    Take care,

  2. Your positive attitude is so wonderful to see. There is a way to look at anything in a positive light. I have written a book about it!

    Great words!

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