The Worst Part About Having Had Cancer Is Talking To People About It
It’s natural, especially within a circle of friends, to talk about memories. That time you broke your ankle after falling out of that tree in your backyard. The time you threw up at your birthday party because you ate too much cake. But the time your organs started to shut down because your body was overcome with infection doesn’t exactly have the same place in the discussion.
Recently, a few friends and and I were talking about our favorite Halloween memories. I told them about the first time I was Dorothy (there were at least three more times that I can recall). I was in the hospital and I had no hair which was a problem. Since wigs are expensive and it was only a Halloween costume, my mom decided to make me some hair. She fashioned me a pretty stellar Dorothy ’do out of brown yarn. It is one of the best memories I have and definitely my favorite Halloween moment, though yes, the circumstances were less than favorable. When I was done recounting, a friend (who really is a lovely person) said, “Wow. Way to make everyone depressed.”
In his defense, he was kind-of kidding and this response is something I’ve heard before. But. Sorry this really beautiful example of how much my mother loved me and a memory of Halloween that I hold close to my heart made everyone so uncomfortable. Sorry that I don’t have a story to tell of any “normal” Halloween. But this is all I have.
Am I just destined to be ostracized from normal conversation because my memories are more “depressing” than yours? I don’t look back on that time in my life and think, “God, I wish I had someone else’s experiences.” Why must my memories somehow be about you and your level of comfort?
I recognize that there is a time and place for things. And I recognize that my experiences are definitely unique, but why is it when we’re confronted with something different we just shut down? And why am I “depressing” or “negative” because I want to, as everyone does, talk about my experiences?
Once, when I was changing for gym, a girl asked me what was up with my stomach. I explained that I'd had cancer and had my kidney removed. She responded, “I would kill myself if I had a scar like that.”
Now clearly that's a horrible thing to say. But I really don’t think she knew what she was saying. I really don’t think she processed it at all. The first thing she did was think about how this thing that happened to me would have affected her. She did that so quickly that she didn’t even remember that I was a person and that this was my experience. Her response, while particularly cruel, is nothing unusual.
Another common (and by far the most annoying) reaction is dismissal. This usually happens with men. Something I’ve had to do with everyone I’ve been romantically involved with is explain (as gym girl so eloquently put it) what’s up with my stomach. Some guys wax poetic about how “it's really beautiful” and while I guess I appreciate the intent here, it's still bullshit. It’s not beautiful. It’s actually pretty horrifying. But that's OK. Why does it need to be beautiful for it to be OK? Why do we consider denial to be a valid way to approach people’s life experiences and concerns?
You're not doing me any favors. In fact, if anything, you're taking away my autonomy. I have been with wonderful men who love all parts of me equally. But they don't feed me a bunch of BS about how "it's not that bad." They recognize that it's not their place to interject any opinion.
One guy actually said to me, “Well I wasn’t expecting that.” Well buddy, neither was I. Sorry I didn’t live up to the unfair representation of my naked form that you created in your head upon meeting me. Sorry if my silhouette didn’t suggest to you that I had a real life outside of your purview. Nobody wants to feel like their naked body is disappointing.
I had multiple surgeries to remove my kidney and then corrective surgeries due to infection, which have left me with a foot-long scar on my stomach. It’s not a clean scar and I still have sutures in place that poke out close to the skin’s surface that are both visible and touchable. Since it happened when I was very young, my body formed around it, leaving my stomach uneven. Point is, it’s pretty fucking bad. I could definitely get it cleaned up (as many people have suggested I should) but that costs money and means more surgeries. I also don’t really care.
Sometimes the sutures hurt and I do wish I could fix that. But I don’t wake up every morning thinking about how I can be more pleasing to other people. Or how I can make my life experience less physically visible. I don’t feel defined in any way by it. When bathing suit season comes around and I’m limited by what bathing suit will fit me and not make people stare, I get a pang of sadness. But mostly, I’m really glad I was given the opportunity to become a more empathetic human being. I find it to be an extreme honor.
So a word to the wise, the next time someone tries to talk to you about something “depressing” that happened to them, be aware that maybe you are actually the one making things uncomfortable.