Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds duel citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
— Susan Sontag
As a cancer survivor I often feel like I’m an outsider trying to fit into the world I once occupied, the world of the healthy and cancer free. My cancer diagnosis has caused me to view the world differently—for example many things that once seemed enormously important have lost significance and become almost trivial. I’ve discovered that physical attractiveness, material possessions and social status all matter less to me now. Not surprisingly, these things frequently seem to fade into irrelevance as I confront a life-threatening illness. The realm of cancer is teeming with complex, and sometimes even existential, topics. Healthy individuals are able to carry on with day-to-day trivialities, but I’ve had to stop in order to reflect on some of the deeper questions that others have the luxury of ignoring. Since being informed that I have cancer I’ve discovered that I can no longer defer life’s existential questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Who am I?
Susan Sontag was an American writer and commentator on modern culture. She published essays, novels, and short stories. Sontag explored society’s attitudes toward cancer in her work Illness as Metaphor.
Regrettably, I’ve learned that our society still has misperceptions about chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and that there is still indignity for those of us living with such conditions. This legacy isn’t surprising considering the profound fear, confusion and stigma surrounding cancer for centuries. Until relatively recently the word was hardly spoken in public or said out loud. In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote the classic, and still controversial work, Illness as Metaphor. A breast cancer patient herself when she was authoring the book, Sontag argues that the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses add greatly to the suffering of patients and frequently inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag strives to show cancer for what it is—just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and it is often highly curable if good treatment is followed.
It’s no wonder that some cancer patients still choose to avoid revealing their illness to others. Some don’t want to be viewed differently. They just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. Others may choose to stay silent to protect their privacy and emotional stability. When the news broke last month that musical legend David Bowie had died at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, fans around the world expressed not just grief but shock. Despite more than five decades on the world stage, under the glare of a public spotlight, the rock-and-roll icon managed to keep his cancer journey a secret from fans and friends alike, sharing it only with a handful of people in his inner circle.
Sometimes when people are diagnosed, they receive a lot of advice from friends, family members or others—virtually everyone has known someone with a form of the disease. Often the intentions are good, but the stories can be scary and frequently make a patient feel worse. When a sizeable network of people learned that I had been diagnosed with uterine and ovarian cancer, I received information that was both inappropriate and that increased my anxiety. I was inundated with everything from holistic remedies for cancer to stories about aunt so-and-so’s bowel cancer. Keeping a diagnosis a secret keeps these kinds of opinions away.
Ultimately when my cancer became common knowledge, there was another aspect that I found emotionally unsettling. The moment family members, friends and acquaintances learned about my illness, all of a sudden, it wasn’t about me anymore. To a large extent it became about trying to make sure my mother, who was in the role of my caregiver, was okay. She had a reliable network that was concerned about her and that wanted to make certain that she wasn’t becoming too overwhelmed or too upset. I don’t resent the support that was provided to my mom, but at the time I remember being a little envious. It made me more keenly aware that I don’t possess a large number of close friends myself; it also became slightly harder for me to focus on my own emotional issues and specific needs.