Part of my job requires me to keep up with news of all kinds. And whenever I update myself with health news, it’s easy to notice that there’s news on the topic of cancer every day, whether it is about a new development in treating it, or about cancer prevention. More often than not, I’ll also see inspiring stories of survivors (or patients who are preparing for their death).
I notice a trend in these stories. It’s always about how the patient is a (usually young) person with a bright future, and how cancer struck in an unexpected way, how the patient and the family grieve, but eventually saw the positive in the negative, persevered through the tough treatments, and finally came out of it strong. And regardless whether the patient survives, there’s a silver lining behind the dark cloud.
Why are all the stories such a cliche?
Because inspiring stories sell. Everyone loves a pauper-to-prince story, and about how good triumph over evil. And so, everyone wants to hear how a tragedy happens to someone, and how he/she bravely overcomes it.
Can you imagine this story being published: Rachel has cancer, no insurance coverage, and no family members to take care of her. Because she has been a nasty and grouchy person, she has no friends too. When she fell ill, she became nastier and grouchier. She died after a long period of painful chemotherapy, with no one by her death bed.
In the end, patients are expected to look strong
No thanks to such “expectations”, patients are supposed to be brave and strong. There are many dark sides to fighting cancer that people may not have seen. I find it too cruel to share the horrible side that I stopped updating my social media about my illness. It’s too cruel to the social media audience, mind you – not to me. After all, what they want to hear is that I’m fighting a strong and brave fight. They want to make comments like: Kristen, you’re so strong and brave! Good luck! You’re going to get better! I’m going to pray for you! (Disclaimer: I appreciate well-wishers, really. And honestly, I can tell if you mean it or not. I may not call you out, but I know it. So, genuine well-wishers, I’m not referring to you.)
And what they want to hear in reply: I will! I can get better! Thanks for your prayers! I feel better already!
But guess what – this doesn’t always happen. I don’t always feel like a warrior. I don’t always want to share with you how I am really feeling right now (usually, in pain, afraid that I may die, lying in bed weakly). Sometimes, I may just want to sob quietly by the bed, asking God why it has to be me.
I didn’t feel like replying your Facebook comments to me and then find the strength to also look at your travel photos, food photos, and baby photos on the same platform, because these are luxuries that I may not be able to enjoy anymore.
Everyone wants to hear a good story especially after the fight is over
Even after the fight is over, and you’re officially a “survivor”, everyone expects a good story. I think the term “survivor” is so loaded, people put their own perceived value to it. You’re a cancer survivor, so you must have an inspiring story to share.
We held a small gathering shortly after I was given the “all clear” by the doctors. Some of Keith’s friends whom I hardly know came by.
I was asked questions like: How did God touch your life during that period? Do you feel like cancer has made you a better person? Share about how you overcome the pain! (Not verbatim, but definitely to the same effect.)
Now, I need to clarify that I was indeed very close to God when I was going through the treatments, and the ordeal made me and my family more prayerful. And because of the closer relationship with God, I’ve understood Jesus’ passionate love in a more “real” way, having experienced physical (and emotional) suffering, and this makes me want to be a better Christian (and in effect, a better person).
The issue I have is: I think I’ve been very lucky and I don’t think my experience can be taken to be a representation of many cancer patients out there. I have been extremely privileged because my parents, being self-employed, were able to take care of me very closely, I have a close group of girlfriends who supported me, my new husband did not run away out of fear and is also a faithful Christian, and many of my church friends supported me through prayers. There are many other privileges I have received when I was fighting cancer (that I may share another time), which helped me to weather through this darkest period of my life.
But these are not privileges that every patient will go through, I believe. And I find it absolutely presumptuous to ask a cancer survivor to share the positive parts of her/his ordeal, as if it were a given that the experience has to be positive, and that the survivor must have an inspiring story to tell.
Why do you want to hear stories anyway?
Is it because you want to feel better about yourself? Like, man, I feel good now to know that I’m better off than so many people. Or is it like, wow, this story makes for a good one to share with my friends the next time we are contemplating about life!
You know people who are racist stereotype a particular race and form a specific opinion about them, right? Thinking that all cancer survivors must share a common trait (such as, having inspiring stories to share), is a similar form of bias.
I have a lot of inspiring stories to share. But they aren’t all accumulated during the time I fought cancer. God has touched my life not just when I was fighting cancer, but also when I’m not fighting cancer. And the time I fought cancer comes with a lot of ugly stories too, just so you know. If you want to hear the good stories, you got to accept the ugly ones too, but I’m not sure if everyone wants to hear them.