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Breaking the Stereotype of Cancer Survival

stereotype of the cancer survivor

People always tell me I’m “brave” for being so happy and positive through my journey.  They admire how I’ve adapted and grown through my experience, to be this guy who could logic his way through any challenge.  Sure, I may often end up, or come off as happy, positive and cheery in the face of adversity, but that’s not ALWAYS how I truly feel.  I may have “won” my battle with cancer but I certainly don’t always feel like a winner.

In reality, the ugly, not-too-well-known truth about cancer is that it affects you long after its left your body.  The physical fatigue, maintenance treatments, and weariness are just the tip of the iceberg.  The emotional drainage of facing your mortality, sometimes multiple times, often for years after treatment “ends”… the frustration of an all-too-slow recovery and the realization that you may never be your old self again, all of this plagues many cancer patients long after their last treatment is over.  Not to mention the medical bills…

But finishing treatment is still hailed as a victory, as something that NEEDS to be celebrated.  So many survivors go on to do great things, and develop amazing personalities and attitudes.  Cancer survivors (survivors of any tragedy for that matter) become hailed as heroes; physical embodiment of those words “brave”, “blessed” and “bright.”

The thing is, survivors are now expected to act that way – they too often have to put on a smiley face because the cancer and treatment is “finished”; its impacts on their lives, complete.  That expectation is UNFAIR.  It’s causing us to set unreasonable expectations for how we should feel, or where we should be after treatment.  Even worse, it’s leading to many survivors hiding their true feelings; it’s leading to too many feeling ashamed or weak when they don’t feel as strong as people think they are.

Expecting someone to feel glad that they survived cancer is like telling war veterans with PTSD that they should pucker up and just be glad they’re alive.  It’s not always easy being grateful for the worst thing that’s ever happened to you…

So, if I’m being honest…

Sometimes… I hate that I got cancer.  I hated having to suffer through it.  To this day I still suffer because of it.  I spend more time at the hospital getting treatment and waiting around for appointments than I do at university or hanging out with friends.  I get aches, spasms and cramps every day for no apparent reason.  I have skin peeling from my body, that itches incessantly and I can’t do anything about it.  I get tired for no reason, I fall in and out of depressive moods every few weeks and I’ve had to go from not being able to walk for all the tiredness and weakness to being able to live a normal life 8 TIMES NOW!

I don’t feel blessed.  I don’t feel brave.  I don’t feel proud.  I don’t feel glad to be alive.  Not all the time.  More than anything…I feel tired.  It’s been 4 LONG years, and I’m STILL not done with this.

And I’m not alone here either.  Many survivors hold this view, to some extent.  Many, however, hide these feelings instead of dealing with them.

I’m writing this to let you know that you don’t have to be brave, badass, or blessed to beat cancer.

You don’t have to put up a facade, or berate yourself for the expectations of others.  And it’s okay to feel down and pissed off every now and then.  Everyone does.  You’re not weak to admit that you’re going through pain and suffering, physically and emotionally.  In fact, it’s pretty brave to admit that you are.  You shouldn’t have to feel that way. You shouldn’t be ashamed that you’re finding things hard.

But if you can admit to yourself that you are at times… it’s actually the best thing you can do for yourself.

Realizing and accepting that I was human, that there were things I couldn’t control and that it would take time to get better, didn’t bring me down into despair.  If anything, it prepared me for those tough times.  And it left me only one way to go.  Up.

It was what allowed me to take a step back and look at where I was, without any delusions of grandeur or expectations of miracles.  I looked at the big picture, and focused on what I could control rather than what I couldn’t.  And that was what got me through this, not some inner strength or positivity or the blessing of others (although they were always appreciated).  Those 2 simple steps; of (1) taking a step back and (2) questioning my fears and obstacles until I saw and focused on what I could control… YOU, hell ANYONE reading this can do.

When I started feeling self conscious due to the impacts of treatment, I realized that I was only hurting myself to please others and chose to live my life how I wanted to live it – not by how others told me I should. Over time, that’s made me the happiest, most self confident version of myself.  When I get frustrated about how long it’s taking to get back to normal, or at how I’m being held back by this cancer, I choose to see that I’ll get there, in time.  That in truth, I can still do so much, I can still improve myself; I can still read, write, and think.  This whole experience has taught me so much about myself and what I can do.  It’s brought me BEYOND my old normal.

So I want to leave you with one simple message.

You’re not WEAK if you think life is hard and painful sometimes.  You’re definitely not ALONE.  In fact, You’re NORMAL, and in truth, STRONGER for it.

For those of you who know others who are going through hard times, whether it be cancer or any other tribulation, I hope this lets you know that just because someone may seem to be coping with it well, it doesn’t mean that they are.  That simple question, “Are you okay?” can save lives.

And breaking that stereotype of a survivor starts with YOU.

Have you encountered the expectation that as a young adult survivor or caregiver you should be strong and grateful?  How have you dealt with these stereotypes?