It’s hard to talk to someone who’s going through cancer or grief, we get it. But for the love of all things beautiful, don’t give us advice or “inspirational quotes” when we’re not asking for it.
I am tired of the toxic positivity from people who aren’t genuine when they “check in”. Stop calling me your hero or your inspiration. My experience doesn’t need to be meaningful or inspiring for my existence to be worthy. I am just trying to continue living. There’s nothing else to it.
“God gives the hardest battles to His toughest soldiers.”
So if I was weaker, I could have continued to have a normal life? I could have had the option to have biological children? I could have lived the rest of my life not terrified of a relapse for the years that follow if I survive?
“You don’t look sick.”
I’ve lost my hair, and a bald head is probably a cancer trademark. So I do kind of look the part. But I get it, you want to say I am more responsive, I look like I got more energy, I’m smiling more, I have more of an appetite, I don’t look like I’m struggling to exist… say that. I “don’t look sick” because this is a better day than others, but I am still sick. Don’t deny it. It still exists even if you can’t see.
“At least you get time off work.”
Ah. The silver lining of a cancer diagnosis. I was dying to have a vacation after all. It’s not like I have to go to the hospital twice or sometimes five times a week. It’s not like there’s a pandemic and my immune system doesn’t exist. It’s not like dealing with a cancer diagnosis hurts your mental health.
“Well, you’re young. You’ll be fine!”
I imagine people hugging themselves when they say this. It’s hard to face the reality that cancer can happen to anyone. In fact, nearly 1 in 2 Canadians will experience cancer in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 will die from it. And if you’re anything like me who is curious, you’d Google the prognosis for your type/subtype of cancer. The odds are fucking scary. It’s terrifying so people want to believe you have better chances if you’re younger. But why do children die from cancer? And why did someone a year younger than me die from the same type of leukemia that I have? What makes me, another young person, different that would somehow make survival more attainable?
That answer is scary. I don’t know which statistic I will eventually fall into, neither does my oncologist. Will I be in the death pile or the survivor pile? Will I continue to be in the survivor pile or will I be in the relapse pile? No one know for sure. She can tell me the statistics and all the other numbers, but those aren’t guaranteed. Some people live years after their “expiration date”, some don’t make it, and some do only up to the exact day.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
When a friend sent me a long “comforting” message ending in this, I just left them on read and never spoke to them again. I didn’t have the energy to even bother. This phrase just makes me angry. You can’t make sense out a situation that doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes bad things just happen. For no other reason other than life giving us a human experience that isn’t complete with some form of heartache, loss, grief, pain, disease, and death.
Life sucks sometimes. Like it sucks out the happiness out of your life and you feel like an empty shell. There are also days it makes you angry at the circumstances, for taking away the life you had. It pulled the carpet under your feet and you fell over, disoriented, and you ask why… life shrugs and says, “just because.” Not because “you’re strong.” Not because “you deserved it.” Not because “you’re being tested.” We say all of that cliché positive shit to feel like there’s something more to it, when there really isn’t an extra layer.
Life just wanted to fuck with someone that day, and life picked you.
“It could be worse.” or “You’re lucky you found out early.”
No. Just no. I know anyone can die at any moment, but I don’t want to think about dying when I am. Finding out you have cancer is the opposite of luck. I don’t think I found out “early” because it feels like it was a bit late when I did. Although I am glad there was still time for treatment before it got any worse, it doesn’t feel like it was luck that brought me here.
Also, don’t use our suffering to make yourself feel better. Don’t say shit like “well things could be worse (for me)” and then make an example out of someone’s cancer or loss or disability. I will always remember waking up from a nap while I was in the hospital. The woman I shared the room with was on the phone with one of her friends and they were talking about her diagnosis—a rare anemia. “But it could be worse,” I hear her lower her voice, “the girl beside me isn’t even 30 and she has leu-ke-mia.” She said it like that, similar to how some parents spell words so kids don’t understand. I cried for an hour. My brain translated her statement as “at least I’m not dying like she’s dying” as I laid on that hospital bed for the fourth week in a row, waiting for the day I get the green light to go home.
I have to admit, I have done that before too. “It could be worse. I could lose my legs/arms/etc.” But I never thought of the other side of it. I never thought of how shitty it could make people with disability feel. It’s basically saying that our lives are better than theirs, but who are we to judge that? It’s that unhealthy habit of comparing ourselves to others, part of this positive pep-talk to perk ourselves up. Why do we have to put people down to feel better about our lives?
Positivity isn’t enough to console someone going through a difficult time in their lives. Positivity even stops us from allowing the negative emotions to pass. If we keep bottling those feelings up and ignoring them, one day it will explode and it won’t be pretty. Like a pressure cooker, you need to let some steam out. Positivity isn’t enough support. Real support is support. Being present, listening to them, wiping away the tears, holding your loved one’s hand or holding them in your arms. Cooking for them, driving them to appointments, being with them at consultations, helping them with weekly errands, picking up something at the post office for them. It a lot of effort, but they are carrying a heavy burden by themselves and they can’t do it alone. Your positive thoughts don’t do shit for them.