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Why You Don’t Always Have to Be Strong to Survive Cancer


The most common metaphor used to describe having cancer is the “fight.” We are fighting cancer. And, really, that makes sense. Cancer cells grow, and we do whatever it takes to kill them. There is a protagonist and an antagonist, and they are in direct conflict. Our bodies are a battleground, and there are plenty of casualties along the way. We lose our hair, hearing, bone mass, breasts, ovaries, testicles, appendages, relationships, libidos… I could go on.

And sometimes, in the bloodiest battles, there are fatalities. See how relevant this metaphor is? It’s hard to think of it in any other way.

People sometimes use the “journey” metaphor. “You’ve come so far in your cancer journey.” It’s not as aggressive as the battle metaphor, but it’s so bland and trite and saccharine. Fighting feels more pro-active; it gives the illusion of having some semblance of control. The fight battle metaphor gets tricky, though, when we think in terms of “winning = strong” and “losing = weak.”

I mean, the stronger opponent wins, right? But does that mean when cancer wins, it’s because we were weak… or not strong enough… or didn’t fight hard enough? Fuck no. Of course it doesn’t.

You don’t die from cancer because you weren’t strong enough. You die from cancer because cancer is a fucking asshole.

female cancer survivor up close

People tell me all the time how strong I am (and, yeah, I am fucking strong  —  and I’m glad I learned that about myself and I’m glad people see that). But when you’ve impressed people with how well you’ve handled being sick, it makes it that much harder to show your weakness.

You start to wonder if they’ll see you differently. Will they begin to forget you were ever strong? Will they become uncomfortable around you? Will they resent you for making them feel bad? Will they no longer be proud of you? Will they begin to feel guilty for being healthy when they’re around you? Will they, deep down, wish you’d stop complaining about your fucking cancer?

Strength is easy to champion; weakness is harder to get behind. It’s harder to talk about. But it exists nonetheless.

Before my diagnosis, it took a lot to make me cry. Now I cry all the time at things happening around me. But when I cry for myself, it’s usually in the shower. It’s in that solitary moment I can indulge in feeling sorry for myself. I can get mad at my body for it’s constant… fucking… betrayal. I can be sad about the side effects of treatment without having to add at the end, “But at least I’m alive!” to lighten the mood.

I don’t need perspective in that moment. I don’t need encouragement. I don’t need answers. I don’t need coping suggestions. I need to love myself in my weakness.

I wish it was as easy to be vulnerable as it is to be strong. I wish more people understood the strength that can come when you allow yourself to be weak. I wish I could understand that myself  —  not just rationally, but emotionally, too. I wish weakness was more acceptable.

Maybe it’s up to us to make it so.

So, I’m going to continue to be proud of the strength I discovered in myself as a cancer survivor. I’m probably even going to keep telling other survivors I admire their strength  —  because we are stuck running this awful gauntlet and haven’t been knocked off, and that’s fucking impressive.

But I’m also going to challenge myself to allow for weakness too and to not hide it as if there’s something wrong with it. Because I think we sometimes need to give ourselves permission to not have to always be a “super survivor” — the very bastion of strength.

female cancer survivor laughing

It’ll take time, but, you know, cancer is a journey, after all.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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Thinkstock photo by kieferpix


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