The Good Cancer

The Good Cancer

I’m up WAY too late (remind me not to make myself a nice huge mug of caffeinated tea right before bedtime) reading the blogs of other people who’ve been through what I’ve been going through for the last few months, and I came across this:

People, even doctor-people, tell you that thyroid cancer is “the easy, one, the one you want to get”. That’s their preference, because it has its own protocol, its own special weakness, its kryptonite is iodine. What they don’t tell you, and should, is that it’s easy for them. For the patient, it’s not easy. The body still rebels. Innocent cells still get hurt. Don’t get me wrong…I am damn grateful that I don’t have one of the other cancers. I’m just annoyed at how trivial they all made this seem, how light and easy they said this would be. If you’re in my situation now, I’m sorry. I know you want all kinds of reassurance that it’s not going to be so bad. Trust me, it’s not so bad! Only sometimes! I’ve got friends battling 6 months of hell right now, just to stay alive. You wouldn’t want to ever trade places with them, your cancer for theirs. But, you don’t have the “good cancer”…there’s no such animal. So, any fear, any panic you’ve got…it’s okay. You are entitled to it.

This paragraph could not resonate with me more. They don’t really warn you about the weird path on the way to treatment, how very sick they make you in order to treat you. Severe hypothyroidism is significantly more than just feeling “tired”. At least my endocrinologist had the decency to frame like this: “You’re going to be feeling pretty low.”

Also, I found a link to Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent essay, Welcome To Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch, an excellent rebuttal to both the joyous optimism cancer patients are supposed to feel and the cult of consumerism that has enveloped breast cancer, and hinting that the culture of ultra-feminine cancer care and support is actually turned into a form of busywork that prevents feminists from rising up and taking action that might help prevent this disease.

Like everyone else in the breast-cancer world, the feminists want a cure, but they even more ardently demand to know the cause or causes of the disease without which we will never have any means of prevention. “Bad” genes of the inherited variety are thought to account for fewer than 10 percent of breast cancers, and only 30 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have any known risk factor (such as delaying childbearing or the late onset of menopause) at all. Bad lifestyle choices like a fatty diet have, after brief popularity with the medical profession, been largely ruled out. Hence suspicion should focus on environmental carcinogens, the feminists argue, such as plastics, pesticides (DDT and PCBs, for example, though banned in this country, are still used in many Third World sources of the produce we eat), and the industrial runoff in our ground water. No carcinogen has been linked definitely to human breast cancer yet, but many have been found to cause the disease in mice, and the inexorable increase of the disease in industrialized nations-about one percent a year between the 1950s and the 1990s-further hints at environmental factors, as does the fact that women migrants to industrialized countries quickly develop the same breast-cancer rates as those who are native born. Their emphasis on possible ecological factors, which is not shared by groups such as Komen and the American Cancer Society, puts the feminist breast-cancer activists in league with other, frequently rambunctious, social movements-environmental and anticorporate.

But today theirs are discordant voices in a general chorus of sentimentality and good cheer; after all, breast cancer would hardly be the darling of corporate America if its complexion changed from pink to green.

In the mainstream of breast-cancer culture, one finds very little anger, no mention of possible environmental causes, few complaints about the fact that, in all but the more advanced, metastasized cases, it is the “treatments,” not the disease, that cause illness and pain.

Even the heavy traffic in personal narratives and practical tips, which I found so useful, bears an implicit acceptance of the disease and the current barbarous approaches to its treatment: you can get so busy comparing attractive head scarves that you forget to question a form of treatment that temporarily renders you both bald and immuno-incompetent.

Fascinating stuff. That last line reminded me instantly of one of the major points of the graphic novel Persepolis, which I’ve recently finished; in distracting the population with head scarves and the length of women’s shirts, radicals and dissidents can be distracted away from the cause of revolutionary action. For the record: thyroid cancer is increasing in frequency more rapidly than any other malignancy. It is now the 8th most common form of new cancer among young adult females. And in case you didn’t know the cause: at high risk of thyroid cancer are people who have been exposed to radioactive particles from atomic weapons tests and nuclear power plant accidents such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. I’m told the Toronto region has one of the highest rates of thyroid cancer. But I guess the best thing I can do is go shop for scarves to hide my scar and keep on being brave, right? The idea of making room for anger in cancer care absolutely fascinates me.

0 thoughts on “The Good Cancer

  1. is it something worthy of anger? I’d think not. It might be worth some frustration, but really everyone is just trying to do the best they can and trying to do right by the patients. the proliferation of accounts available on the fantastic intarwebs, in books, and magazines and feelings they provoke, because those accounts are usually portrayed in ways to provoke, are not necessarily paths toward recovery as much as they are about building little support communities for systems of belief that may or may not be beneficial. I suspect far more strongly that they are not beneficial as the mind is a powerful thing and our sympathies, in my mind, would prolong and strengthen our own identification with the status of having problems that so many accounts likely promote. Granted of course that I think the culture of health information is really a culture of the promotion of hypochondria and thus a culture of promotion of the health industry. I as such am skeptical as to the merits of reading and focusing our attention on such accounts unduly. Though granted there is space for consideration.

  2. Acknowledging what’s happening to you and understanding the scope of it is healthy; denial that anything is happening at all, which appears to be what you’re recommending, is not healthy. I agree that the mind is a powerful thing, and one must not screw with it by sinking into denial and avoiding thinking about the elephant in the room. That way lies anxiety and panic that comes out in everything you do. Been there, done that. That doesn’t help you move on. It helps you cling to it. If you ignore it, you can’t celebrate it leaving.

  3. Now that is now what i said at all. I am not saying to go into denial. What I am saying is that if you want to move on… it is quite a bit easier if you aren’t carrying along everyone else’s opinions about how you should move. I don’t think there is anything to celebrate though. That would be a strategy that in my mind reifies an identity. The question is… is ‘having survived cancer’ something that you want to be part of your identity as a daily or weekly thing or is it something that you revisit every few months. That’s what I’m trying to get at, the habituation of the identity. I think you have far many more talents that deserve to be celebrated and habituated.

  4. Some things leave a mark on you, and this is one of them. Lots of things are part of my identity, however, including this and my apparently quirky fashion sense. Identity isn’t a zero sum game. I think it’s a bit early, and rather unfair, to ask me to know exactly how to overcome this by now.

  5. THANK YOU for this! I am sick to death of people telling me I should just get over it. Really? How the hell do they know what this is like? I’m the first of my friends to have cancer.

    I’m 28 years old and have/had (not sure which one I should use!) papillary thyroid cancer, dx’ed on April Fool’s Day, removed on 4/28. Doc is holding off on RAI because I am “low risk” and I am thankful for that, but I have a feeling this stay will be short-lived.

    My blog contains a lot of bitching and moaning in it; it isn’t the most uplifting thing but it is completely real, so check it out if you like.

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