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Column: The Best of Intentions, I’m Sure

Regularly, throughout my now nearly four years of living as a stage IV non-small cell lung cancer “diagnosee”/survivor, I have had conversations where the person with whom I’ve been speaking–in response to a query of mine, said about a particular set of their circumstances: “Oh, it’s nothing, really. I mean, it’s not cancer, so it’s not as bad as what you’re (meaning me) going through.” Said with the utmost sincerity and sensitivity to me of course, and with my feelings/reaction most definitely in mind; for a long time, I simply acknowledged their empathy/sympathy and continued on with our conversation as if no emotional pot–of mine, had been stirred.

As time has passed, however, and I have continued to evolve as a cancer patient; meaning it wasn’t about me all the time any more, responses to questions I asked, like the one inferred in the previous paragraph, began to irritate me–regardless of how well-meaning they were. Granted, a cancer diagnosis is bad news, but there’s always worse–in my mind. And when people would self-censor their answers to me about something bad in their lives–which from their perspective was not as bad as receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer as I had, it began to have the opposite effect on me. I felt worse for their not having said whatever their bad news was as if I was (A) inadvertently responsible for their not answering my question and (B) since I was the ultimate bad situation, nothing could ever be worse than my situation, so it seemed inappropriate somehow to consider even mentioning it. In short, I became the measuring stick for “bad,” and since people rarely shared their bad news with me (out of kindness, I know), it meant–to me, anyway, that my news/situation was worse. How would you like to be the bad news/situation against which all presumably bad situations are compared? Every time I hear: “Well, compared to your…,” I feel even worse than I try to never let myself feel. Internally I can manage it. But when external forces–random though they may be, contextualize me in a depressing and disparaging way, I feel depressed and disparaged; two feelings which I fight hard to avoid. Cancer already has a foothold. I’m trying to prevent it from having a stranglehold.

As a cancer patient, one has sufficient challenges and surprises navigating through the various treatment protocols/requirements/appointments/scans, etc., attempting to assimilate the unthinkable into the “first-thing-you-thinkable.” The experience is sort of like going from the sublime to the ridiculous except there’s nothing sublime or ridiculous about it. (And by the way, your life depends on it.) Ergo, reinforcing a negative, as in my diagnosis being a conversation stopper–or re-director–takes me to a place, emotionally, that I never want to go to or be perceived as having been. I’m not sure if this is ego or naïveté or denial, but I can manage my feelings better when I bring them on myself rather than when others do so.

Now whether where I am emotionally, or how I got there really matters in the short term, I cannot say. But if there’s going to be a long term, I need to feel better about my circumstances, not worse. They’re bad enough on their own; I don’t need any help making them worse.