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Coastal Voices: It's not a moral crucible

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"You're so brave,'' people would say. "You're a real hero.''

I used to get that a lot after my hair fell out. The effects of chemotherapy made me look like some plucky child protagonist in a movie of the week. Volunteering to have cancer to spare someone else the pain of it would have been heroic. But I was no volunteer.

"I'm not brave," I would say, "I'm just unlucky.''

This made people uncomfortable. But I would rather do that than accept unearned praise or, worse, listen to comments that, to me, dishonor those who have died of cancer.

During the 10 years I've been a cancer survivor, my marriage has grown stronger, my bouncing baby has blossomed into a gorgeous virtuoso of sarcasm, and my career has taken flight. I am grateful for this life every day.

It's tough being a cancer patient. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the prospect of painful, premature death are quite enough for one person to shoulder. The additional burden of sainthood is simply too much.

When strangers would observe bald little me doing something normal – grocery shopping, for example – they would beam like proud parents. "You are so brave!'' they would exclaim.

Managing fear

Of course, grocery shopping is a necessary act, even for people with cancer, and not terribly dangerous. But my admirers persisted, as though I were suddenly extraordinary. "I could never be as brave as you!''

That oft-repeated line is telling. After all, if cancer is a disease for extraordinary people, the average Joe or Jane doesn't have to worry. Even in the psyches of the healthy, fear of cancer is enormous. Consciously or not, making cancer patients the saintly "other'' helps make that fear manageable.

When I battled breast cancer, I was frequently told that God would not take a person as good and loving as I. It might be a nice thing to believe: I was a churchgoer. I'd worked in a soup kitchen, collected for Toys for Tots. I was not Mother Teresa, but then virtue doesn't make one immortal; Mother Teresa died, just like everyone else.

When I expressed skepticism that my character could supercharge my immune system, I was often treated to impromptu sermons about keeping a positive attitude. Consider the logic: When you have the flu, people say, "I'm sorry. Hope you feel better.'' When you have cancer, people expect you to maintain a positive outlook and remember that you'll come out on top. People I barely knew would quote lines such as Bernie Siegel's "There are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.''

Ultimately, stressing the importance of positive thinking is a way of managing fear. It makes cancer controllable – for the patients, yes, but especially for the healthy. But linking virtue, resilience and survival dishonors those who do not survive.

I remember watching a television segment on an athlete who'd had cancer. "Cancer really picked on the wrong person,'' one of those interviewed said in explaining the man's determination and ultimate recovery. So, are there right people for cancer to pick on?

I kept my sanity during treatment through the help of a support group. Half of these women have died. Those who did not make it had cancers with high mortality rates or cancers that were quite advanced when they were detected. The women were strong, smart and caring – such terrific ladies that they almost made me believe the myth of cancer sainthood. But they also got parking tickets and forgot appointments, just like everybody else. They were human, and I loved them for it.

Comforting words

My friends were failed by their cells, not by their will. The horror of cancer is that it descends on irreplaceable mothers, brothers, children and friends. Some of them will die, no matter what we or they do. As we strive to honor those who had and those who are still fighting the disease, it's important to remember whom exactly our words are meant to comfort – the people speaking, or the people in need of support.

Colleen Shaddox is a writer in Hamden, Conn.

 

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