The day I received my chronic illness diagnosis still ranks among the worst days of my life. It solidified my worst fear during the years of testing and misdiagnoses and uncertainty: that my life would never be the same. Friends and family rushed in with loving expressions and compassionate words. And, inevitably, as many newly diagnosed chronic illness patients will hear at some point, I was told those dreaded words which I have no doubt uttered in the past: “At least it’s not cancer.”
Cancer. The word itself sounds destructive. Hazardous. The kind of word we only dare whisper for fear it will set its sights on us next, and because voicing it aloud only reaffirms its power. It has become a curse word, an expletive. The “c-word.”
My illness is not terminal, and every single day of my life I am grateful for that. By reminding me that my illness is not cancer, you are trying to be uplifting. Reassuring. I get it, and I appreciate that. You are relieved I am not dying. I am, too. But when did cancer become the standard by which we judge every illness? When did we reduce every illness to two categories: cancer, and not cancer?
Suggesting that someone should be grateful they do not have cancer undermines the very real struggles they face with their illness. It implies that the excruciating pain, constant nausea, crushing fatigue, frightening memory loss, mobility impairment, and other symptoms are irrelevant, and all that matters is the name of the illness. And if the name is not “cancer,” it’s hardly worth discussing.
Telling me it’s not cancer quickly shuts the door on any open and transparent dialogue about my illness. How am I supposed to respond to that? How do I tell you I’m terrified when, hey, at least I don’t have cancer? Some chronic illnesses inflict the same low quality of life as terminal illnesses, just without a foreseeable end date.
When we begin to compare illnesses, we perpetuate a chronic illness community based on competition. People say my illness is better than cancer, but what about diabetes? Bipolar disorder? Congestive heart failure? Should I tell someone with the flu, “At least it’s not dysautonomia?”
Cancer is a horrible disease. We can all agree on that. The world will be a better place when we find a cure. There are plenty of other awful illnesses out there as well, many of which can be as serious and devastating as cancer. If we reassure patients with noncancerous illnesses by reminding them they are fortunate not to have cancer, what do we say to someone diagnosed with cancer? “At least it’s not ALS?”
Comparing every illness to cancer also ignores the individual experience of each cancer patient. While we use the term “cancer” to refer to the abnormal cell growth that has the potential to spread throughout the body, there are hundreds of different types of cancers, all with very different pathologies. Some cancers can be treated if caught early, while others progress too rapidly to stop. Individual experiences with such a prolific disease cannot be lumped into a single category. Let’s not devalue their battles by trying.
I do not know the purpose of life, but suspect it must lie buried somewhere in the threads that weave a community together. We have to build a better community, where all patients are allowed to share their story. We begin by quietly listening.
If you are searching for something meaningful to say to a friend who was recently diagnosed with a chronic illness, there’s nothing wrong with simply stating, “I am so sorry you are going through this.”
Without mention of the c-word.
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