When it comes up, the rage follows shortly. The rage doesn’t ever map onto what the other person meant to say, do or explain. They always mean it as a compliment. It’s meant to make me feel good about myself, meant to encourage me to continue. In fact, though, it does just the opposite.
I’m talking about the idea that being a bad-ass will change the course of cancer treatment. It’s generally understood, in the circles I hang out with, that the happy-happy pink-pink culture that pervades all things breast cancer is politically f*cked. Yet, many of these astute folks who can clearly dismantle pink culture pick up a new set of words to replace hopeful pink positivity. Instead, they call me a “fighter,” they say I’m “tough,” they label me a “bad-ass.” Indeed, I am all those things, thankyouverymuch. But being those things has nothing to do with how my body responds to cancer treatment.
Every time that I’m told I’m a “bad-ass” for “beating” cancer, the fear of recurrence that lives inside my belly blazes brighter. I don’t want anyone to know I’m not a bad-ass, and I want to always be one, and since being a bad-ass is linked to my “beating” cancer, each time I hear it I become more afraid of a recurrence. What will I be if I have a recurrence? I wish instead that I could simply know you’d still be there. I wish instead we could stop talking about this as though it were a battle. It only terrifies me more. It only rips away the shred of security I had in our friendship. It only leaves me wondering who I could possibly lean on if what I am most terrified of happens. It only makes my eyes pool with tears.
Every time I hear it, I want to punch someone, I want to smash plates on the sidewalk, I want to scream so loud a window shatters. It makes my heart ache for the friends I’ve made. What if they die? My worries that my cancerbuddies won’t always be at my side in this journey out of cancerland can’t be calmed when you tell me they are fighters, bad-asses, full of strength. In fact, just the opposite happens. The worry is fanned, and it grows bigger, eating up the oxygen and taking more space than I ever wanted it to have.
Every time I hear it, my heart starts to beat a little faster. The color creeps into my cheeks. My fists ball. I become unable to make an argument that is coherent. “But it must be related, at least a little, you say. It must be. You must be able to control some amount of your treatment by being awesome.” It’s so well-intentioned. I understand we all wish we could wish ourselves out of this situation. But every time I hear it, the carefully constructed stories I’ve stacked up all around me about cancer and community and health and the future come crashing down together, clanging into a pile of scraps I must painstakingly right yet again.
Now, being a bad-ass may help to deal with the emotional cluster f*ck of cancer. Certainly. Being a bad-ass may make asking your friends to have a Bye-bye Boob Gathering pre-mastectomy a little easier. Being a bad-ass might be useful when networking with other young people with cancer. Being a bad-ass could be handy in starting a cancer-blog. All of these things might make how you cope with cancer easier. But dear god people, they do not change how many cancer cells the chemotherapy kills. There is no evidence that outlook or emotional well-being has any correlation to survivorship. So please stop saying I’m doing well because I’m a bad-ass, or that X person will be OK because they are a bad-ass. Cancer has no regard for bad-assery. That’s just not how it works.
I know your intentions are great. I don’t care. What happens when you participate in the discourses about fighting cancer and being a bad-ass does not map onto your intentions. What happens is that I feel like shit. Sometimes it’s just time to recognize that we can’t know how our words fall into a space we’ve never been in. It’s good then to swallow the words instead and keep them inside our bellies until we can let them out into a space we know well. I’m telling you, when you want to come into cancerland, keep the words that link being a bad ass with doing better in cancer treatment inside your belly. I’m telling you they don’t fall the way you imagine them, and I hear something entirely different. I hear you telling me how to be and I hear you limiting possibility and I hear you ignoring what I’m feeling. In cancerland, we’d rather hear you listen.