Give Us Some Respect

As a cancer survivor, I sense that lately I’m not always getting the respect that I deserve. The healthy and able-bodied appear to be increasingly apathetic, indifferent or self-centered concerning the needs of those of us with cancer. It’s a serious lack of respect that many in society are regarding us with, they treat us as if we are of little worth or disposable. This disrespect has come to a head in the past year or two, some experts even argue that our civil society has begun to deteriorate under the strain of the pandemic. It’s become every person for themselves or a Darwinian attitude that favours survival of the fittest. Here are a few fundamental ways that you should support cancer patients, as well as those with other chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Appreciate that we are at higher risk from COVID-19.

The pandemic is over or “we have to learn to live it” are becoming the new mantras as society becomes increasingly weary of the international health crisis. What’s fascinating to me about those who ask “how long do you plan to wear a mask indoors?” is that it hasn’t occurred to them that most of us who have survived cancer are comfortable not knowing the answer to that question. I’m used to living with unpredictability and not knowing what the future might bring. I can cope with the uncertainty of not knowing when this pandemic will actually end.

Not wearing a mask indoors right now is the perfect analogy for ableism, it tells me you believe you are invincible and take your health for granted. Your choice not to mask is a red flag that you don’t think about anyone beyond yourself. You can’t imagine that you’ll ever become disabled, or dependent on others. When you don’t wear a mask, and you look over and observe me masked, it reveals a great deal about you. It informs me that you are short-sighted and you think that if you survive COVID you’re fine. You don’t stop to consider possible long-term outcomes, such as organ damage, that might occur months or years later. 

Regrettably, I perceive your strong independence, and it’s the toxic kind. I can hear you making bold statements like “it’s not my fault if other people get sick” (maybe in fact it is). I see implications that my right to life and quality of life are not worth protecting. I get an uncomfortable reminder that you’re not in solidarity with me or millions of other cancer patients. 

Place us at the centre of a circle of support.

Being a caregiver or immediate family member when someone has cancer is enormously challenging, but it doesn’t equal the experience of the actual patient who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. A technique has gained attention for dealing with a major life crisis, such as a cancer diagnosis. It’s called the ring theory of kvetching, and was named by the psychologist Susan Silk. When Silk first wrote about the concept in the LA Times in 2013, she drew on her personal experiences as a breast cancer patient. Once when she declined a colleague’s visit, pleading exhaustion, she was told, “This isn’t just about you.” “It’s not?” she wondered. “How is my breast cancer not primarily about me?” 

The main principle of Silk’s ring theory is that support, caring, comfort FLOWS IN. Kvetching, venting, complaining, requests for empathy, all of this only FLOWS OUT. The person or people with the serious illness, trauma, or other enormously challenging life situation — they get to complain outwardly to their first circle of support. The first circle of support, usually spouses, parents or other immediate family members do NOT vent — about the challenges, the loss of sleep, the emotional toll, etc. — to the person at the centre of the trauma.

Don’t come to us with unsolicited advice.

The truth I’ve come to accept is that I didn’t cause my cancer and I don’t have the ability to simply will it away. However, when my ovarian cancer was initially diagnosed, I was more desperate and naïve, more willing to imagine these things were still under my control.  I was hospitalized for over a month and a half at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. When I looked into some of the other patients’ eyes, I could see them begging for a future, and I understood that they would do almost anything for the gift of just a few more months in this world. 

Looking back at the trauma I faced as a new patient, both my desperation and need for reassurance were justifiable. Unfortunately, some of the things that people either said or wrote to me during that time were highly inappropriate. Many of their suggestions worsened, or even exploited, my fear and vulnerability. In particular they reinforced the misconception that I could directly control the course of the insidious disease that had invaded my body. On occasion this might have been due to malevolence, but I still believe the leading cause of people’s poor advice was ignorance.