Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NYT Well: "Does cancer make you strong?"

The New York Times's Well blog had a great piece a few days ago about a new book called “Everything Changes: An Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s” by Kairol Rosenthal.

The blog entry focused on a particular aspect of the cancer experience explored in the book (and in a recent post on Rosenthal's own blog): what to say to someone who has cancer, & (especially) what not to say. In particular, the article focused on the tendency for well-meaning family & friends to tell the cancer patient about how "strong" & "brave" they are. Writes Rosenthal:
"I think it is great to honor cancer patients and recognize the challenges we face. But don’t call me strong when I have no other choice. It discounts the many nights that I sobbed alone into my pillow and felt cowardice in every inch of my body."

I don't want to discount the very real & awful & unique challenges faced by cancer patients. But I honestly think you could go through the article & substitute "infertility" or "pregnancy loss" for "cancer," and the words would be just as true -- so much of what I read sounded soooooo familiar...!!

I know that personally, whenever anyone told me how "strong" I was, I would find myself muttering, "I don't FEEL very strong." Or when people would say, "I just can't imagine..." I would think, "You don't WANT to imagine." I realize people mean well, but, uttering such trite cliches tends to discount & gloss over the way that those of us facing difficult situations REALLY feel.

Read the piece here -- and read the comments, too! -- and tell me what you think! (The first comment is a tad snarky, but the vast majority that I read agree with the author.)


  1. Well, there are too many comments to read thru. The one that struck me most was:

    I think there is actually something unintentionally mean about repeatedly telling us that we are “strong.” It sends that subtle message that people are uncomfortable with the really difficult emotions that we are experiencing and would prefer to remain ignorant. I think it gives people a pass not to get involved. I always felt that I had to be perky and tell comfortable lies not my true feelings.

    I think all kinds of things are said when folks are uncomfortable. Cancer, chronic illness, infertility/child loss, & death cause other folks no end of difficulty.

    I was at a funeral recently where the pastor's wife uttered "All things happen for a reason," & "These things come in threes" (it was the 3rd death in the congregation in 4 months). Frankly, her comments irritated me (it was not my own family loss) & seemed extremely trite & i hoped she wouldn't repeat this to the family. I also have problems with "God's Will" issues.

    Along with infertility/miscarriage i struggle with chronic illness & i recently had someone tell me i didn't have enough faith. There is no end to the stupid things people will say when they are uncomfortable. I honestly think i'd rather be told i'm "strong."

    The fact is anyone going thru any of these issues & keeps on going is a hero. There are countless folks who continue to get up every day & keep on truckin'. It was said that the alternative (in cancer anyway) is to die. But there are other ways folks give up. And most rise to continue living. There IS an alternative, some do choose to die.

    I imagine, tho i could be wrong, that in heaven we will become aware of all these heroes & the challenges they mounted to keep on going. A large portion of people face different challenges & heartbreaks. And the other portion are uncomfortable with it & talk about bravery & courage to push it farther away from themselves. I don't know if that makes sense, but i think sometimes these comments are made to make the speaker feel more secure.

  2. I concur with Kathryn. Yes, I've learned over and over that when people are uncomfortable with what we are experiencing, they compliment you and hope you don't go on and on about it cause it's depressing and certain things about life just suck. It also makes them feel better about where they are in life and in their own worldview.