health

'I'm sick and it's not my job to inspire you.'

Cancer is not all brightly coloured ribbons, so why do we pretend it is?

A laughing bald child in a cheerily decorated children’s ward. A bright yellow daffodil. A confident woman stepping out into the world having just lost both breasts.

These are all things with which we associate cancer. They are overwhelmingly happy things: big smiles, bright colours and positive people.

We tell cancer survivors to “stay positive.” But what if the reality of undergoing an intense and physically crippling treatment means that they don’t want to?

This was the topic of a recent Gawker article, written by cancer survivor Lauren Sczudlo. In the article, Sczudlo spoke candidly and seriously about her frustration when her family refused to acknowledge that her chemotherapy experience had left her feeling sick, tired and depressed:

I think that they expected me to exude the upbeat attitude of the survivors on television commercials, donning pink ribbons and walking marathons, declaring a new lease on life. Cancer patients are expected to be poster children of a movement, meant to reassure the masses that this plague, and even imminent death, can be overcome with positive affirmations and attitude adjustments.

According to the American Cancer Society, over a quarter of cancer patients develop depression. In Australia, the figures are lower, but still significant, with a survey of members of the NSW Cancer Registry showing that 9% of participants reported clinically significant levels of anxiety and 4% reported depression.

We wouldn’t tell any other clinically depressed person to just “cheer up”, but this seems to be an acceptable way to react when someone with a serious illness is feeling down.

In support of Sczudlo’s article, Katy Waldman wrote this for Slate:

Why do we demand an upbeat attitude from people who have seen the extremes of hardship or perpetuate this idea that there is a “right” way to suffer from a disease? There is no “right” way. And blaming something like cancer on someone’s state of mind strikes me as the same kind of new age hooey—pseudoscience underpinned by a desperate wish for control—that produces lunatic fads like juice cleansing (which is, by the way, sometimes marketed to cancer patients). Pressuring survivors to embody our fond hopes for human fortitude is exploiting people at their most vulnerable.

In short: we shouldn’t expect cancer sufferers to bear the responsibility of making us feel better about ourselves, and about the disease. That is not part of their treatment. They are not our inspiration porn.

Cancer sufferers are not the only people society tries to turn into inspirational heroes. Last year, Stella Young wrote an article for Mamamia about inspiration porn and disability:

Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”.

Do we do the same with cancer patients? Do we refuse to recognise the possibility of depression after cancer, or during treatment, because we need to hold cancer patients up as some sort of optimistic ideal, in order to inspire ourselves through comparison?

The answer is probably much simpler than that:

We see cancer patients as people who are always happy and positive, because we wouldn’t be able to deal with the reality.

Do you think that society had unrealistic expectations of cancer sufferers? Should we more aware that the reality of treatment is far worse than we could imagine? Share this post to show your support for those undergoing treatment today…

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