September 06, 2009

Do You Like Being Called Strong?


My mom and dad drove to Chicago for an impromptu Labor Day weekend visit.  My mom sat by my computer this morning as I checked my email.  We began a conversation about Wendy Harpham’s blog post on “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Cancer not only sucks for me, but it hugely sucks for my parents to have watched me go through it. I asked my mom what she says when someone tells her “What does not kill you makes you stronger.”  Her reply: “I’d rather be weak.”  I love my mom’s line of thinking here.  It is so her: bold, tactful, and humble.

I think and write a lot about ‘What is strength?’ ‘What is weakness?’  It seems to me the cancer community has blown out of proportion the concept of strength. My back has been up against the oncology wall many times when I’ve gone under the knife or swallowed a radioactive iodine pill.  I’ve surmounted these challenges not because I’m strong, but because the alternative means dying.  It is strange to have placed on me such lofty personality judgments and descriptors like strength, courage, and inspiration in response to having gone through situations that stink and about which I have no other choice.

In Everything Changes, I interviewed Jill, a 38-year-old breast cancer patient.  She said, “The last thing I want is people cheering me on because I had a disease that I didn’t want, was miserable getting through, and wish I never had.  That should not be my moment of fame.”

I agree with her.  I’m not saying don’t celebrate the fact that I’m still alive.  And I think it is great to honor cancer patients and recognize the challenges we face.  But don’t call me strong when I have no other choice.  It discounts the many nights that I sobbed alone into my pillow and felt cowardice in every inch of my body.  I don’t want to erase those moments with a clean sweep of ‘strength washing’; one of the best by-products of my  cancer is that it has helped me befriend weakness.  I no longer think of weakness as a negative term.  In fact, I’m pretty damn proud that I can let myself feel scared and vulnerable.  After all, cancer is scary business.

What is your response when someone says “What does not kill you makes you stronger?”   What do you most want to be celebrated for?  If you have a different illness, is there a lot of “strength talk” about your disease?

For more encouragement on finding strength through vulnerability, check out Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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March 10, 2009

What Would You Tell A Newly Diagnosed Patient?


Flirting in Bars

In today’s Huffington post I talk about 20 and 30-something cancer patients cramming for finals, flirting in bars, climbing the first rung on our career ladder, and changing stinky diapers.

In my interview with Christine Hassler she asks: If you had one thing to share with recently diagnosed 20 and 30 somethings that you wish you had been told, what would it be?

My Response

You do not have to become a glittery superhero in order to fight adversity. Cancer is hard stuff. Strength comes from being real. Allow yourself to sometimes feel vulnerable and to have meltdowns. They do not last forever and you may even feel invigorated afterwards.

Secondly, the definition of hope is fighting for your best care. Cancer is not only emotional and physical, it is administrative too and the burdens of paperwork can really impede our healing. Many hospitals have patient representative services or ombudsmen. If after your second try you are unsuccessful at getting records, obtaining procedural approval, or resolving a financial matter, have one of these professional advocates intervene on your behalf. Think, question, and shout when you need to.

What is one thing you would share with newly diagnosed cancer patients that you wish you had been told?

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February 02, 2009

Ten Cancer Truths


I spent five hours sitting on a dumpster dived sofa in an apartment in San Francisco, transfixed in conversation. I was interviewing Wafa’a, a lymphoma patient in her early twenties, for my book Everything Changes. We ranted about parents, dating, and loneliness. At the end of our rapid-fire conversation, Wafa’a clearly, slowly, and eloquently stated a list of pointers she would give to newly diagnosed patients. I thought I’d make my own list too:

1. Climb. If it makes you feel good to climb a mountain or run a marathon with cancer, fantastic.

2. Cry. If you cry yourself to sleep and cannot scrape your depressed head off the pillow in the morning, that’s pretty normal too.

3. Reality. Don’t believe the hype that we can choose whether or not cancer is going to get the best of us. Cancer is not an attitude. It is a disease.

4. Smash. Put one foot in front of the other, roll with the punches, yell, cry, and break things as needed. (I recommend smashing a dozen eggs in the shower: cheap, satisfyingly messy, yet easy to clean up.)

5. Ask. Ask for help when you need it from people who are good at giving it.

6. Learn. Make educated choices while realizing there is no guarantee that the right choice will yield desirable results.

7. Love. Love those who support you and take a break from people who just don’t get what you are going through.

8. Science. Get constructively pissed off at the system, but stay curious about science.

9. Change. Don’t work too hard on using your cancer experience to change your outlook on life; it will do that all on its own. (And if it doesn’t, don’t worry, some of us prior to cancer already had great outlooks that didn’t need much changing.)

10. Vulnerability. Create your own definition of strength and let it change as needed. For me, strength comes from recognizing that I am vulnerable.

What are some cancer truths, or pointers, you would give to newly diagnosed patients?  Are there any of mine that you disagree with?

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