[cancer] Comparing pain cards just makes me want to go for my thankfully nonexistent guns

Yesterday, I read a blog post where someone was describing their struggle with depression in earnest, heartbreaking detail. Then they said something I found very strange. They described cancer as a “physically evident” disease, in contrast with depression, the very clear implication being that somehow people with cancer were better off compared to people with depression.

This irritated the hell out of me, and I spent some time trying to figure out why.

It certainly wasn’t personal. The writer wasn’t trying to put me down, or cancer patients in general. I think their point was that invisible illnesses are harder for other people to understand. Which makes sense as far as it goes. I’ve said the same thing about cancer, and cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve been told, “But you don’t look sick,” or some close variation thereof.

Except suffering is not a contest. Suffering is not a race to the bottom. It’s not a competition to see who has the worst, most unspeakable affliction.

Not to mention, many people with cancer, and I suspect most people with metastatic cancer, struggle with crippling depression right alongside their disease. As is true of most chronic and fatal illnesses, I should think. Given that depression often accompanies cancer, the idea that people with cancer somehow have it better than people with depression is a ridiculous one on the face of it.

Also, for whatever it’s worth, as I said above, cancer is also largely invisible. I’ve been ill for six years as of next month, and for most of that time, unless I was in surgical recovery or deep in the throes of chemotherapy, you couldn’t tell it by looking at me. Even then, I mostly looked like a gaunt bald guy. I could just as easily have been a meth head as a cancer patient.

These days my disease visible, but not as cancer. I get mistaken for my father’s brother, my mother’s husband, my partner’s parent, my child’s grandparent. But what I look is old, not cancerous. To the casual eye I’m 49-going-on-60something, not 49-going-on-tumorous-wretch.

I appreciate that the blogger was writing from a place of deep personal pain. But what read like an expression of envy for visible disease such as cancer was very hard for me to interpret with good will. I’ve done the chronic clinical depression thing, from my childhood into my mid-twenties, complete with suicide gestures and hospitalization. I know that world intimately from the inside. Now I’m doing the terminal cancer thing, starting at age 43 and going through an awful downward slide that has carried on for years. I know that intimately world from the inside. They don’t compare, they’re both beyond awful. One is not luckier than the other.

Really, truly, it’s not a contest. Claiming that people with some other terrible disease are better off than you is a strange form of reverse privileging. Assuming that cancer patients don’t struggle with depression as deep and crippling as chronic clinical depression is simply thoughtless. I mean, I could just as easily say, “Hey, you depressed people, with proper treatment you can lead rich, full lives, but I won’t live out the year. You have it way better than me.” Which would be about the stupidest, most pig-ignorant thing I could say to my friends who struggle with depression.

Really, truly, cancer patients do not have it better than the depressed. We’re all struggling here. We’re all suffering here.

5 thoughts on “[cancer] Comparing pain cards just makes me want to go for my thankfully nonexistent guns

  1. “Except suffering is not a contest. Suffering is not a race to the bottom. It’s not a competition to see who has the worst, most unspeakable affliction.” This is so very true. I run into it when I tell my own story about my mother’s murder. People always want to compare their pain to mine and it simply doesn’t work that way.

    Pain is pain. Anguish is anguish. Suffering is suffering. All are occasions for compassion not competition.

  2. Tim Keating says:

    Well, I will say only this, in the spirit of not stirring the shit too much. When you tell someone you have cancer, they never ask “Why?”

    1. Unless you have lung cancer, in which case they’ll ask you, “Did you smoke?”

  3. Stacia says:

    “Invisible illness” is a helpful term for people who have a mental illness or any number of conditions that don’t manifest in an outward appearance. That said, I’ve NEVER heard anyone discussing that and using cancer as the example of something you can always perceive via observation alone. In fact, it seems like the exact wrong example to use; from LJ friends who shaved their heads and were assumed to be in chemo when they weren’t, to people I know who are ill and in treatment but show no visible signs, saying “it’s not a visible illness, not like cancer” is a particularly bad choice.

    The Invisible Disabilities Association website even has on their front page an example of someone whose spouse had cancer but people kept telling her “you don’t look sick.”

    I hope the blogger was gently informed of their faux pas.

  4. Casey says:

    About a month ago, a pancreatic cancer charity in England ran an ad showing a sickly young woman with this quote above her head: “I wish I had breast cancer…”

    I follow several stage 4 breast cancer patients on Twitter, and witnessed the shock and horror the ad caused these people. I consider this event, and what you experienced with that blog post, as symptomatic of our culture’s pathological compartmentalization of illness and death away from society at large.There’s suspicion and distrust between the sick and the well, and among the sick themselves, with the sick and the well not having a clue how to relate to each other.

    Your posts and those of Lisa Bonchek Adams, for example, help to bridge this gaping abyss, though some, like the Kellers, seem to think they’ve got it all together on the subject of death and dying. You just go away and do it. Soundlessly. Nothing to learn here.

    The real disaster is that our dying is no doubt made much more harrowing by this purposeful relegation to the gulag of forgetfulness. The only way to counter this is for the ill to blather on and on and for the well to listen assiduously, carefully, to plan accordingly, and to bring the ill back into the circle of the living as close to the center as they can.

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