If you spend any time on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the meme. You know, the one about how everybody wants a new mobile, new car, new clothes, but how a cancer patient only wants one thing, to get well. Sometimes, the meme ends with a challenge that only 3% will share it. I was generally in the 97% that didn’t, although I’ll admit that it was mostly because I didn’t like the implied judgement about people – about me – who want new things, rather than because I questioned whether cancer patients “only want to get well”.
And then I got cancer. And the meme became even more annoying, because it turned us into a stereotype.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I’d like to be healthy! In fact, I spent a good, if rather disorganized, part of my life before my diagnosis, trying to do the right things for my health and I’m still doing what I can, within reason, to prolong my life after my diagnosis.
But it seems to me that for the meme to reduce all our wants to just one thing, means that it reduces us to just one thing, our cancer. Not only that, but it reduces us to sick cancer patients, unable to lead full lives or incapable of being as frivolous and shallow as we want to be.
Perhaps my perspective is what it is, because a cure is not available for me, and my therapies focus on keeping things in check and maintaining quality of life, rather than on obliterating every last cancerous cell in my body. Perhaps it will change, when I reach a final stage, where I am, in fact, very sick, or in a lot of pain, or can no longer physically or mentally tolerate therapy.
In the meantime, however, I’m still the same person I was before my diagnosis. I’m still vain and mind the fact that any new clothes I buy need to be a few sizes larger than when I was diagnosed. Shiny little sports cars certainly catch my eye, as I tootle along in my conservative car, and I’m starting to realize that, careful as I am with it, my phone probably isn’t going to outlive me and I’m happily considering new models. Cancer didn’t suddenly make me wiser or less selfish, at least no more so than any other experience Ι had in the past, although I certainly appreciate the fact that certain people seem to think it did!
Cancer hasn’t made me less prone to human foibles, and other terminal patients I’ve spoken to seem to share the same sentiment. We work, raise children, travel, run marathons, shop, dance, and, in general, live our lives, while also going for chemo, scans, blood tests and completing insurance forms. A few even develop a vision of to provide practical support to others, like Emma did. I’m sure we all have different levels of acceptance of living with, and, perhaps, dying of, cancer, both among us, and even within ourselves at different points, but we still have dreams and things we can and do accomplish in our new normal.
So, if you decide to share that meme – though not with me, please! – consider its message. Don’t reduce us to sick people with only one thing on our mind. We’re all on a journey, with fewer or more difficulties and obstacles, with smoother or rougher passages, with less or more beauty, wisdom, silliness, humor, sadness, love and pain, along the way. We learn to appreciate the good parts and gather strength for the not-so-good ones.
And in that, people with cancer are no different than anybody around them.
Your words in this blog made me remember the TEDx by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of the single story. We should not allow cancer to transform people into a single story that prevents us from seeing them and loving them for themselves.
Even if you did not have cancer, Paula, your words would captivate me. I am sure that, had I met you before your diagnosis, I would have been inspired by you in the same way I was when you began to speak in the second forum of PAMEMMAZI. Cancer might have been the reason I met you, but you shined for reasons that have nothing to do with it.