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My Cancer Is Not Your TED Talk Moment

What if my cancer had no purpose and my suffering didn’t have any meaning?

“I would do it all over again if given the choice,” said my friend about her cancer.


I was shocked.


How could someone be glad about such a terrible thing?


“I’m glad it happened, it brought some good things into my life. I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said, pointing to her closer relationship with God, and how her marriage has become stronger.


I can never say the same.


Maybe her answer would be different if she had gone through treatments. Maybe it would be different if her children were younger. Maybe she would be more resentful if she got cancer when she was younger.


I got the whole Cadillac package of the cancer treatment.


You know, the best of the best — chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. I was in the last stretch of my 30s when I got diagnosed with stage-III breast cancer, my mastectomy surgery was my 40th birthday present life gifted me. My four children were 10 years old and under, with my youngest being only 1 1/2 years old. My cancer was aggressive and thus required an aggressive approach.


What she said made me feel bad; then angry. I refuse to call cancer anything remotely close to being “good”.


Somewhere along the line, because of my faith and because I believe in God, some Christians expected my cancer should and would be this journey of significance where in the end I find enlightenment and profound meaning, and my suffering should be the declaration of God’s glory.


“God would not give you anything you can’t handle.”

“Your suffering will make your faith stronger.”

“You will grow closer to God.”

“Sometimes when a bad thing like this happens, it’s God's way of trying to guide us back to the right path. It’s a chance for us to examine our hearts.”


Or from those who don’t believe in religion:

“This will only make you stronger.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“You will learn so much from this.”


What if I say, there is no purpose to my cancer and my suffering doesn’t bear any meaning?

What if I say, cancer is just a shitty disease that happens to normal people, and let’s just call that that and move on?


I got cancer because cancer can happen to very healthy people, very good people, or “very good” Christians. I use the phrase “very good” for the sake of the Christians who believe bad things happen to you because you are not a good enough Christian, and God is punishing you or disciplining you for that.


I don’t believe that.

I didn’t get cancer because I wasn’t good enough, either in my diet, my lifestyle, my faith, or because I was not good enough morally.


Cancer. just. happens.


There are times in life when you just can’t mince words. Coating it up does not change the fact that cancer is ugly, horrific, and traumatizing. In fact, there isn’t a “journey” for cancer. Everyone who is diagnosed knows it, there is no end in sight.


Once you get the beast in your body, your life is forever infused and intertwined with it. Your children will live with the knowledge that their parents might die from it.

If it’s genetically related, they will live their lives looking over their shoulders wondering if this beast will show up and devour them. This beast will ride on their chests, and maybe even the chests of their children their whole lives. The beast will stomp on their chests from time to time to knock the wind out of them to remind them it rules their lives.


I live my life with the plan that there is a possibility I might die from this disease.

We spent a big sum of money taking a big international trip to see my family because we didn’t know if next year I would still be in remission to make the trip. There were some books I read to my children that we recorded for the chance that I might not be around to read to them anymore.

I often end up doing an activity with my children even though I’m initially reluctant because I don’t know if I will still have the chance to build this memory if I choose not to now.


My cancer is not an allegory. It is not a quest. I don’t need to gain anything good from it. It is certainly not for you to imbue meaning in it so you can feel better about yourself, or feel better about the fact that I was really sick.


My cancer is not your TED talk moment. I don’t need you to give me any inspirational speech, any motivational dialogue, or any insightful conclusion, as if my cancer is a worthy cause to be taken up and a noble challenge.


In trying to make my cancer a remarkable thing, you change the narrative of my story. You take away my right to be angry and bitter about my sickness. You diminish my suffering and dismiss my pain.


My cancer is not a platform for you to deliver your astute perceptions. It’s not something for you to discuss and dissect. No matter how you dress them up, your empty words of wisdom don’t help me find meaning. Cancer has torn my family apart, ransacked and damaged my body, afflicted and fractured our mind, and we are still walking in the PTSD wake of it, every single day.

I deal with pain and the after-effects of chemo daily even though the treatments were three years ago. Painful doesn’t even come close to describing it.


Next time if you’re tempted to say something remarkable about your friend’s cancer, how about trying to be silent instead. Hold space for them to be able to talk about their feelings honestly. If they cry, hold them.


There are times when the fewer words we say, the better it is. Such as death, such as cancer. Instead of words, show up instead. Bring them a meal. Babysit their children or pets. Shop their groceries. Clean their house.


There is so much you can do to show your love and support, but making their cancer into your TED talk moment is not one of them.


(This article was first published on Medium.)


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