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.