Thoughts on Cancer: survivor mentality and getting by

Well, I guess we’re getting right back into the heavy stuff. Start strong, stay strong. Right? CW/TW: post discusses cancer and other sensitive topics surrounding it.

This post is by no means a full account of my experiences with cancer, nor with the experiences of my family members and friends. Like most of my posts, it’s simply a small little summary of one part of my life. An important part of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fit it all in to one post, so here’s one part of a bigger whole. Keep that in mind moving forward.

In the past few years, I’ve grown pretty familiar with the cancer wings of a few different hospitals. I’ve spent some time looking out the windows of Southlake’s spacious and bright chemo hubs with my mom, and I’ve listened to the whir and beep of IV machines at RVH in Barrie and again at Princess Margaret in Toronto with my dad. I’ve walked through different worlds in a matter of seconds; going from the busy streets of Toronto, with beeping car horns and fast walkers going everywhere and nowhere, to the busy halls of one of the major hospitals on University Ave, with their own fast walkers and different beeping noises. Granted, I haven’t spent nearly as much time in these places as some people that I know, but I’ve also spent a lot more time there than some others too.

I wouldn’t call myself a pro on this huge, scary topic, and I don’t think I’d want that title anyway. But there are a few things that I’ve noticed in my time spent waiting on bags of chemicals to finish dripping into bloodstreams. In all the ways that these hospitals and chemo wings are different, it’s not hard for me to pick out their similarities too.

I’ve studied and experienced cancer from both sides. First, as a huge health and social phenomenon and billion dollar industry, with the runs and marathons and breakthroughs and ribbon cutting. But I’ve also seen it from the intensely personal, with the long and mysterious drug names and longer times spent in reclining chairs, just waiting. Cancer seems to hit so fast, and then so much time is just spent waiting.
I’ve seen the survivor and fighter mentality in action, and I’ve seen the “just getting by” mentality too. I’ve seen cancer as a fact of life, and as a sudden tragedy. It’s one word that means so many different things. And it’s strange to encounter something that can be both shocking and terrifying while also being accepted as something that everyone has an experience with.

With cancer, you see firsthand the strength of the human spirit. I’ve watched people sit and have conversations with family members while being pumped full of a chemotherapy concoction. I’ve sat beside my mom, a cocktail of fluids dripping into her arm, while she’s on her iPad responding to work emails and looking at her lectures for her next class. I’ve been equally lucky and unlucky when it comes to cancer. Unlucky in that both my parents were diagnosed within the same year, and my dad a second time a year later. But I’ve been lucky in that they are both healthy and strong people. They make cancer less scary, more hopeful.

As I sit writing this, my dad is getting his blood pressure measured at PMH. I tagged along with him to a treatment a few weeks ago when I was home in Toronto. I went for a walk at one point, stepping back into the busy streets of the city. There’s a lot happening in that part of the city. I was surrounded by major hospitals, including Sick Kids and the Princess Margaret Cancer Research Centre. Part of UofT campus is up the street, and past that lies the busy high-end shopping of Bloor St. and expensive houses off Avenue Rd. Cities put me in a very different mindset than my small town does. Going from a small town into the city is like jumping ahead in time, it feels like someone hit a fast forward button; things are moving noticeably faster than usual but you can still understand what’s happening if you pay close attention.

The hospital is alive with a million different pulses that all blend together as one. Things change so fast that I don’t know how anyone can keep up, especially in the cancer research centre. As I walk down the hallways out of the atrium of PMH I see signs for five different cancer runs/walks/marathons. The names of cancer victims are plastered all over different surfaces, right next to donation tables for five different foundations. All revolving around the same thing. Same end goal, just a different way of getting there. Pink ribbons, green ribbons, yellow flowers, running and walking and jumping for life, doves, closed fists and open hands. But upstairs on the fourth floor, far away from donation tables and gift shops, are needles and white beds and IV tubes with liquids running through them that have names I can’t pronounce. Patients without hair, patients with discoloured skin, doctors with forms and clipboards running from one patient to the next, each one with a different treatment plan, different type of cancer. All there for the same reason.

Like I’ve said, I know cancer from two different points of view. I know it from the ribbons and the 10k’s and the million-dollar industry. The huge companies that sell products branded with pink ribbons that use known carcinogenic materials in that same product. The survivor rallies and peaceful campaigns that work to take hard-hitting pressure off of pharmaceutical companies and research centres. Instead of angry protests we have marathons. It’s action, it’s hope, but is it effective in pushing for a cure?
In my Global Health class last semester we referred to cancer as the “emperor of all maladies.” My professor, Dr. Robert Huish, explained to us how pink ribbon campaigns take the pressure off of the political, social and economic factors behind cancer and the industries that are partly responsible for it. This is the academic, theoretical, and social justice side of the emperor of all maladies.

But I also know it from an entirely different side. I know it from the bright green beads that my stepmom strung together in a bracelet for me and my aunts to wear in hope after my dad finished his first battle with cancer last summer. I know it from sitting in the living room at my mom’s, plugging a bag of saline solution into the port sticking out of her arm the day after another round of treatment. I know it from the three different hospitals that have chemo wings that all look vaguely the same. I can criticize the industry of “survivor mentality” and corporate profit all I want. And to a certain extent, there is criticism there that holds some truth. But on the other hand, I’ve seen what that mentality can do to a patient that has to take ten different drug combinations a day, each to offset the side effects of the last one. Survivor mentality holds people together when drugs are trying to rip them apart from the inside out. Survivor mentality makes good days last as long as they can, and it keeps the bad days from growing worse. And if survivor mentality is what keeps the little bald-headed boy and his mother that I saw in an elevator one day moving forward, who am I to criticize it?

Anyone who profits off of someone else’s pain is not moral, and deserves to be criticized. I know that much to be true. A toxic sunscreen filled with carcinogens that happens to be in a pink container with the logo for the Canadian Cancer Society on the front is a pretty messed up image. That’s what you get in a market-based society, especially in the States where there isn’t a publicly-funded health care system and you have to be at least middle class to even afford treatment and medication. It’s easy for pharmaceuticals and big industries to make a profit off of the emperor of all maladies. But that doesn’t make it okay, not in the slightest.

I guess what I’m trying to discuss in this post is my own experiences with cancer. Like all opinions, mine isn’t the right one or the wrong one. But I’m speaking from experience and a lot of time spent thinking, so that counts for something. In both my parents’ cases, they have met great doctors who truly care about each individual patient and want to see them heal in the quickest way possible. It’s hard for me to just accept cancer as something that can pop up as commonly as the flu, but that seems to be the case for it. And there’s not much that I can do as a bystander and a friend besides offer my endless support, participate in the campaigns and be critical when it’s appropriate. If cancer is going to be accepted as a fact of life, we have to treat our activism and our support for continued research as a fact of life as well.

I would love to hear what you have to say about this. Not just about what I’ve said, but your own candid thoughts as well. Drop me a line anyway you can. After all, we’re in this together when it comes to cancer. Support and love. Maybe that’s the best tool that we have in fighting it?


C.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cancer: survivor mentality and getting by

  1. The idea of cancer has always scared me. A lot. It’s something that I always felt we had no control over and is merciless on who and when it takes over. But as I’ve grown older I’ve realized, as much as it also comes down to genes, there’s a lot we can do like research, and be aware and do our best to prevent and detect. It hits close to home for so many people, which breaks my heart..that it’s become so common. There are to many people with so much left to give to life that get taken far to soon.!I’ve been lucky, you could say, I’ve never had to deal with major trauma. But people like your mom, your dad and you make me incredibly hopeful that if I ever have to face this, that things could be ok. You’re all so incredibly strong and inspiring. I mean that. Support and love is most definitely one of the best answers!

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    1. Thank you Alex, I really resonate with all of your thoughts. Support comes in so many different forms, and having people like you in my life who give off such a strong and positive energy is one of the most special forms of love that I know. It’s that love that makes cancer and the pain that comes with it less scary.

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  2. I feel strongly that people in this fight are fighting for their lives and need to be allowed the power and dignity to do it their way. Those of us on the outside cannot begin to understand their fight with the emperor of all maladies. Their is no room for criticism or imposing your beliefs or ideas upon the individual in the battle. I have seen a few of these fighters and their strength seemed to come from genuine caring loving friends and family but most importantly their strength was born of inside their souls and nurtured by love in their lives.. By living with cancer the fighter always seems to fight for all who carry the burden. Somehow the strength spreads. Paying it forward becomes a way of life. Live by example, I’ve seen it in the life of my Mom. Gracious, gentle and full of love til her last breath.

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    1. Thank you for your reply! I really appreciate everything you wrote, and I know you are writing from a place of love and understanding. We both certainly have some very important role models in our lives when it comes to strength- you being one of mine! We are so lucky to have those people. It is that love and strength that holds us together in the hardest of times, no matter what.

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  3. Ahhh the C word! There is so much I want to say here but the tears began to fall as I started to type. I have lost what I held dearest to this messed up C word! My husband, Mother and best friend, then I traded two things for the three things I love the most and although my body continues to grow things I will fight, I will love and I will celebrate because life is for the living and it is a gift not afforded to everyone! So today C stands for cherish! Xox

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  4. So many good points re: the big fundraising machine and big corporations that do nothing to try and reduce the toxic chemical load on humanity. Research. So crucial. Who decides the direction the research takes? Are the research dollars going to go to the expensive new treatment drug or to studying the link between manufactured products and pesticides etc and human illness? Is the CEO under pressure to do the right thing or keep the stock holders happy?
    Personally, watching and coping and trying to support in such situations only brings one positive thing with it. And that is the focusing and sharpening of every moment spent with the people you love. Every thought of them, every little token remembrance, every word they write or photo of them or the sound of their voice becomes a gem. Appreciation and love are magnified.

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    1. You completely captured the essence of what I was talking about here! I really appreciate all of your thoughts, thank you so much. It’s hard to balance between both sides of the topic, it’s important to be critical but that must be accompanied by love and support as well.

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  5. Caitlin, there is an ugliness to disease that the beauty of observation combats. I hope that you are able to find the daily triumphs no matter how miniscule, because there is always hope as long as we look for it. Your words will echo these moments to remind future you how A-mazzzing your family has been during this ugliness. While the important answers never come easily, they won’t come unless you ask. Keep on keepin’ on.

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  6. You NAILED it.
    Somehow over the last 20 years, the word ‘cancer’ has become the most profitable word with corporations. As a breast cancer ‘survivor’ (I despise that word), I will NEVER wear a pink ribbon and never buy a product that has a pink ribbon on it. The pink ribbon campaign was started by a group of women 20-30 years ago to fight for better screening and care. This campaign has now been labelled as the ‘dream cause’ for marketing companies. I encourage everyone to watch the documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc”.
    I think we also forget that although cancer is devastating, it is NOT a death sentence for most. Statistics show that more than ever, people are living with cancer and not dying from it. However, our society has somehow equated cancer with death and fear and again what a great marketing strategy…FEAR.
    Do people realize that the number one killer is heart disease globally and not cancer. Actually to be truly correct, the number one killer globally is poverty. But Caitlin knows that’s an entirely different topic.
    I think our society, especially Canada, has done a great job decreasing lung cancer because of our tobacco regulations. And so more money needs to be put towards decreasing the causes of cancer in the first place and not waiting for cancer to happen and then throwing billions of dollars into treatment.

    I must agree that cancer changes your life and those around you. You really start to value those individuals most important in your life. It’s odd but life actually becomes simpler.

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