Judgmental Joys

This morning I decided to read a thread from one of the online lung cancer support groups. It resonated deeply with me as one member struggled with speaking at her church because the pastor wanted her to share the surprise lessons and joys she’s found through her battle with cancer. Her response, “There is no joy from cancer.” 

While I’ve learned many lessons about myself and life through my journey with cancer, I agree there is no joy from cancer.

In the thread, other lung cancer warriors lamented that the world doesn’t understand us and encouraged the one asked to speak at her church to enlighten them. People see us enjoying life and think we have found joy in cancer, and don’t give a second thought of how much energy, soul-searching and prayer it took to get to that moment.

Almost all of us in the group never smoked. The drugs and chemo that often fight our cancer usually don’t lead to baldness. We don’t have the face that the media and entertainment portray as Stage IV cancer patients—especially lung cancer.

When I tell people I have lung cancer, I can almost read it in their eyes, “You shouldn’t have smoked.” 

They think I’m not that sick because the drugs and inability to exercise have led to a 50-pound weight gain. I don’t have that gaunt, pail look the media often shows of cancer. While I look at my hair and almost cry some days because so much of it is gone (and I did lose at least half of the hair I used to have), I had so much hair that losing half really brought my hair to a normal level. But I try not to look in the mirror because I don’t recognize the person I see in it.

When I breathe heavily and sweat like I just came out of a Cycle class after walking up one flight of stairs, I usually get the look of, “You should lose weight. Eat healthy and start exercising then a flight of stairs won’t kill you.”

Then there’s the reality I always have in my mind when I’m making decisions, “My cancer is currently incurable.” Treatment for me is not to cure my cancer; it’s to keep me alive. I live every day with the knowledge that my body is working against me and no day is guaranteed. I take solace in the fact that is true for everyone, and I read it in the news when unexpected tragedies lead to the loss of life—no one has tomorrow guaranteed. But for most of us it is a fleeting thought that doesn’t hang over them every day.

Cancer is now as much a part of my body as the liver it’s destroying. 

The media often talks about remission and beating cancer, and everyone around me thinks because I’m living life as full as I can that I’m beating cancer. I often hear, “You look great! Happy you’re doing better.” Meanwhile, inside my body the tumors are growing and the chemo is no longer working to keep the cancer cells in check. 

I hear from well-meaning friends, if you only drink alkaline water or eat a ton of cucumbers or down a combination of tumeric and apple vinegar daily you’ll be cured. Then if I don’t take their advice, I feel they’re offended and no longer want to hear about my cancer because they told me what to do. I know the advice comes from a place of well-meaning, but it often gets processed as more judgment.

I’m grateful that on the outside I look like most everyone else walking the street and most of my co-workers have no idea why I disappear for a few days every month. They say, “How did you like your vacation, or are you refreshed from your time off?” Usually I’m exhausted, jet-lagged, and my body has radioactive chemicals flowing through it wreaking havoc on my digestive system. While I have gained a lot of weight, I can rarely finish a plate of food. But it’s too long of a conversation for an elevator ride, and they wonder why I’m not more appreciative of having so much “time off.” 

No, I’m not looking for sympathy because I believe everyone has their battles. But as I read the thread of comments from my lung cancer group, I realized that the judgment I feel is common with other patients and we want the world to have a better understanding of us and our plight. Then maybe we wouldn’t also have to deal with such judgmental glares and comments on top of our own internal struggles and the pain we feel from watching our family/friends go through this with us. 

I realize this is true not only for lung cancer patients, but for a lot of people, and it is one of the big lessons cancer has taught me—give grace! 

The rude waitress might be dealing with a big life challenge and must work through it because she needs the money. The driver who cut me off might be in a rush because a family member or friend needs help. The person who didn’t hold the door for me maybe late picking up kids. Life throws us all more curve balls than we’d like to admit, and if we all learn to give more grace we can help ease each other’s pain than contribute another layer to it.

I don’t think that’s a joy cancer has brought to my life, but it is a lesson for which I’m grateful. Hopefully I’m teaching it to my daughters so they don’t have to learn it through the hands as something as unforgiving as cancer.

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