Do you ever read something that makes you want to go, “YES!”, and punch the air, and tell everyone else to read it? I read something at lunchtime that made me do that.
It was this article, by Sali Hughes, a writer for The Pool. I have loved Sali and her work for a long time – not only because she’s called Sali, or because she’s Welsh (my adopted home), or because she founded Beauty Banks (which are reason enough on their own), but because she is whip-smart, proud to stand up for what she believes in, and not afraid to write hard-hitting truths about pretty hard-hitting topics.
Today her topic was cancer. More specifically, the way we talk about cancer, and people who have it.
Have you ever noticed that people with cancer are always “fighters”? It’s not an illness, it’s “their battle”. They are never scared, never miserable, never angry or confused about why this happened to them. They are “brave”, “fearless”, “determined”, staring their illness in the eye, daring it to do its worst.
Can I just say something? It’s not like that.
Serious illness is not like that. It’s not a glamorous crusade against a tyrant oppressor. It’s not a worthy stand against an injustice. Yes, it’s incredibly unjust, but developing and being treated for (let’s be real here) a killer disease is not some kind of admirable moral activism.
Frankly, it’s shit. It’s miserable. You feel like crap. You and your family are terrified for each other. Nobody knows what to say. You have to endure endless hospital appointments, admissions, tests, anxious waits for results which, once delivered, just become anxious asking of the question “so what happens next?”
You feel guilty. You feel angry. You feel confused and alone. And did I mention, you feel pretty f*cking terrible? You’re seriously f*cking ill, after all.
And on top of it all, you’ve got to live up to this absolutely ridiculous social construct of “your [insert serious illness] battle”.
It’s usually individualised – as if it’s your bloody fault – but your family are part of it too. They have to “be strong”, “be brave”, “be their rock”. You all have to “be strong” for each other.
That was the word that really got to me: strong.
I didn’t feel very strong.
I felt decimated. I felt broken. I felt every single edge of those million tiny pieces my world had been smashed into. I felt really f*cking angry. I wanted to throw myself off a bridge.
I remember walking around town in the lead up to Mother’s Day and staring at all these other people, going about their other-people lives, and being so confused. How were they doing that, going on living, and not feeling the pain I was feeling?
I remember sitting at home, alone, at 10 o’clock at night, after another 8 hours in the hospital, staring at the chair where she wasn’t. Our house felt empty. I felt empty.
And all I was told was that I had to “be strong”. Why?
I was terrified I was going to lose my mum. And very aware that, nothing I personally did would affect that. It wasn’t my strength that would save her, it was the drugs and treatments and expertise of the doctors treating her. So why did I have to be strong?
“You’re so strong” equals “You’re doing so well.” But I wasn’t. Hearing people say that just made me feel like a failure. Like a fraud. Like I couldn’t even support my mum right. Like I was doing “daughter of critically ill woman” wrong. But I realise now that I only felt that way because that narrative is absolute bollocks.
Yes, positivity in the face of serious illness is a fantastic thing, and many of the plethora of doctors my family has encountered over the last few months have attributed Mum’s ongoing recovery to her sheer bloody-minded determination to get better. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t still terrified, sometimes, about what the future might hold. I know I am.
That’s not to say my friends weren’t there for me. They were, and they were brilliant, and it’s them that got me through this. I just found being praised for “being strong” so completely infuriating.
People fall back on it because they don’t know what else to say. If someone you know is going through something like cancer, or any other serious illness, don’t tell them how strong they are. Don’t stand their at a distance and admire their “strength”. Ask them how they’re feeling. Let them know you’re there for them.
We aren’t lighthouses, standing bright and resolute against a storm. We need other people to shore us up, to help us hope.
They’ll feel guilty because inside, they’re crumbling, and hearing how great you think they’re doing makes them feel they can’t ask for help, at the time they need it most. Maybe if we were all just a bit more real about it, they could.