The downside of finding cancer early–yes, there is one

Cancer, especially breast cancer, is a common theme of advertising, marketing, media and every day conversations.  And, breast cancer is a very unpredictable disease and takes many forms and manifests in many different ways for women.  There are some similarities, however.  Breast cancer is almost always very disfiguring, it hits at  one of the most visible symbols of feminity in our culture, it is unpredictable in its course, and there is rarely an identifying “cause.”  Because of these characteristics, it has become a media “poster child” for cancer.

But, what if, you are diagnosed with cancer early and it isn’t disfiguring?  What if is doesn’t change your outward appearance of feminity?  Do you still have a right to go through all the angst and worry and life change as someone who does?   And that becomes a real question for those diagnosed with cancer in the early stages, or those diagnosed with a cancer that isn’t on the media radar.

It is so interesting to me that we must have a hierarchy, we must be able to quantify our experience and judge against another’s experience to determine how we should be.  Did I do it better or worse than, is mine bigger, was mine more dangerous, was I more traumatized than they? is a common question.  And this applies for those with cancer as well.  Breast cancer is bigger than ovarian cancer due to its unpredictability and its potential for disfigurment.  And Ovarian cancer is bigger than uterine cancer and uterine cancer is bigger than cervical cancer, etc.  Bigger than or worse than or….?  But for those who have cancer, cancer is cancer.  And, it is wonderful to find it early enough to have a reasonable hope of believing you can live a normal life span.  And the downside is, in the heirarchy of illnesses, the support from the community just isn’t there.

In the book, After Breast Cancer: A Common-Sense Guide to Life After Treatment, Hester Hill Schnipper writes:

Although they have been spared the rigors of chemotherapy, they have also had less time and less public recognition of what they were going through.  No one enjoys being bald and feeling sick, but that reality does mean that people around you see what you are experiencing.  Since chemotherapy is usually given over a period of three to six months, you also have time to adapt to being a cancer patient and to process the strong feelings that always accompany the diagnosis.

But women who do not have chemotherapy sometimes find that their family and friends have relatively little understanding of what they have experienced.  Throughout the course of their treatment, any physical side effects or scars are hidden from the world….  Moreover, women in this situation may feel that they have no right to complain because they have not had to endure the rigors of chemotherapy.  Sitting in a support group or in a waiting room with others who have, they may feel that they do not quite belong and that their “luck” isolates them from other cancer patients.  There can be a very unfortunate sense of a cancer hierarchy that works in both directions.  On the one hand, it is better to have had early-stage or even pre-invasive cancer.  On the other, have a high-risk cancer with multiple positive lymph nodes and heavy-duty treatment can “trump” everyone else’s experience.  It is important to remember that the feelings about having cancer are completely independent from the treatment.

It is from this place I realize I have been trying to cope.  So grateful my cancer was found early and the surgery was sufficient to “get it”.  No chemicals to take, no major additional challenges to deal with.  And yet, it was cancer.  And while it seems everything is ok or should be, its not.

And that will be the rest of the story.


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