The Cancer No One Cares About
Two women, a mother and a daughter, are both diagnosed with cancer. The daughter, a young mother of four children, is found to have an aggressive form of breast cancer. Throughout her ordeal with surgery, chemo, and radiation—the fatigue and nausea, the infections and wracking pain, the agony of radiation burns—she finds tremendous support. Not only from family, friends, and neighbors, but from strangers—a host of groups run by breast cancer survivors, women who will clean your house, do your laundry, drive you to treatment, drop off food, and more. Better than that, these women will welcome you into their network and provide emotional support, the kind one can only receive from someone who has walked the same steps.
The daughter’s spirits can be described as incredibly positive throughout her experience. She had her down days to be sure, but overall her attitude was inspiring. Along with her own inner grit, she credits much of her optimism to the support she received from those who know and love her, as well as the outreach efforts of breast cancer survivors and the sense of belonging to this incredible collective of women. When the daughter was too sick to take part in a breast cancer walk for which she organized a team, others took her place and walked on through the night. The outpouring of love and friendship overwhelmed her. Today the daughter is doing well and has a promising prognosis. She finished the last of her radiation treatments in September. She’s gone back school, continues working, and is intent on living her life to its full potential.
The mother’s experience was quite different. There was no organized outreach to turn to, no network of women, no groups offering to help around the house, provide transportation, or extend emotional support. There were no walks, no teams to form, no fundraisers to take part in. The mother’s journey can best be characterized as lonely and isolating. She kept much of her experience to herself, hesitant to share what she was going through because of the kind of cancer she had. She was afraid of judgment, afraid that others would cast blame, as she herself did, believing she’d brought on her own health crisis. Her self-loathing was palpable. Worse, it was and continues to be a detriment to her emotional and physical well-being. Today she is cancer free, though she remains convinced that she will not live long. This fear is a result of the less than promising mortality statistics for her kind of cancer. The fear is further magnified, I suspect, as a by-product of guilt, the dark, lingering shadow of shame.
Why was the mother’s experience so different? Because she had lung cancer. Because she had been a smoker. Because if you have lung cancer, you’re on your own.
What if you never smoked and still get lung cancer? You have a lot of explaining to do if you want to garner empathy and support. You have to try to interrupt those judgments before they harden, those preconceived notions that you have no one to blame but yourself.
And what if you were a smoker? Why do we despise them so much, deny them any measure of compassion? Nicotine is far more addictive than alcohol, is equal to cocaine and methamphetamine in addictive properties. About 15% of people who drink regularly will develop an addiction, compared to 45% of those who smoke. And yet, alcoholism is termed a disease but smoking is not. Attitudes have softened toward the alcoholic because of this distinction; more sympathy is offered, more understanding. Not for the smoker. Especially the smoker who develops lung cancer as a result of an addiction more powerful than the simple willpower society thinks they need only to exercise.