Recently I was interviewed for a radio show on what it’s like to live with—and talk about living with—cancer. The interviewer asked thoughtful questions, including one I hadn’t heard before. The interviewer set up her question with a reference to a friend of hers who doesn’t want others to know that she has cancer because she doesn’t want to be treated differently, like she’s some breakable object. The interviewer then confessed to wanting to treat me “gently” during our interview, which led to her question: what’s my take on being viewed as fragile because I have cancer?
It doesn’t take much effort to figure out that I’ve opted for a more public approach to living with cancer rather than a keeping-quiet-about-it approach. I’ve thought a lot about the dynamics of going public with my condition; even so, the interviewer’s question was a bit startling. No one has framed the issue for me in quite that way: that when we’re public about our illness or our suffering others will treat us differently, and that is something we might want to avoid.
I think it’s fair to say that cancer confers a special status on those of us who have it. I think it’s also fair to say that other people knowing we have cancer often changes how we interact.
I can see where the interviewer’s friend fears being treated differently. We pride ourselves on being independent and in control of our lives; cancer wreaks havoc on all of that. Being out there about our diagnosis and our struggles often makes it plain to others that we’re neither independent nor in control. It makes sense that we’re reticent to make that reality public.
At the same time, I wonder if some people keep their diagnosis to themselves because they worry not about being treated with too much care but with too little. When others in our lives know about our diagnoses, our treatment, our struggles and don’t acknowledge them in the ways we hope (expect?), that can be more difficult to handle than being treated with extra care. It is simply the case many of us fail to rise to the occasion of saying or doing the “right” thing for those in our lives who are hurting. And inadequate responses from others often only increase the hurt. So perhaps it’s not just fear of being viewed as fragile but maybe also a fear of being viewed as just the same as you were before the diagnosis.
As I’ve continued thinking about this issue, I’ve become more aware of how at times I am treated differently because I have cancer. And some of those experiences have been hurtful. But I propose that the issue can be framed in yet another way: instead of feeling upset at being treated as if I need extra care, I’ve often experienced that extra sensitivity as a bestowal of grace.
On good days, when we know we’re interacting with someone who’s going through a tough time, we are more conscious about what we’re saying; we pay more attention to non-verbal cues (like mist in the eyes); we are more patient when the response to “How are you?” takes more than a few seconds. Not only haven’t I minded being treated with more care by folks who are trying to be intentional about to say, but I’ve also been treated to more authentic conversations since cancer entered my life than I’ve ever had before. In many cases, the fact that I have cancer strips away the superficial haze in which we often operate and opens up the possibility for meaningful sharing of deep fears and hopes.
To say there’s grace in being treated differently is not to romanticize life with cancer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: having cancer sucks. And yet I cannot deny that I have received more gifts of grace since my diagnosis than I ever could have imagined. While I’d leap for joy if the cancer removed from my life, the fact is it’s still here, and when that fact slows us down, and encourages us to talk to and hear each other, there’s grace.