Competing in Cancerland

Competing in Cancer Land – We who’ve been hit with the cancer bomb are now part of a community we never wanted to be part of in the first place. We should be unified. But we are not always unified. We should find comfort from each other. But often we do not.

Take the breast cancer community, for example. Sometimes rifts occur between each other — for example, early stagers vs. those with metastatic disease, those who support pink-related celebrations vs. those who do not, and those who have reconstruction vs. those who choose not to, and so on. Life is too short, painfully too short, for us to be divided.

And let’s not forget those people who question others’ treatment protocols. I will never forget how my breast cancer “support group” constantly interrogated me about my supposedly wrong treatment protocol by the wrong doctor and in the wrong hospital.

Truth is, as most of us know, breast cancer is neither black nor white, but a great shade of murky.

It’s not just the breast cancer community that feels conflict within itself. Too many cancer comparisons exist for my liking. The well-known division a few years ago between Pancreatic Cancer Action and the breast cancer community because of the former’s faux pas: Pancreatic Cancer Action put out a sort of videomercial implying breast cancer is better than pancreatic cancer.

Instead of cancer unity, feelings were hurt on both sides of the cancer spectrum. My response at that time can be found here.

But I want to point out a lesser-emphasized conflict: between those who work through cancer treatment and those who do not.

In fact, the next part of this post was conceived way before I even knew what a blog was and while I was in treatment for breast cancer. I was in New York City visiting family a few days after my latest chemotherapy treatment. I used vacation days, as I was still working full-time and juggled a part-time job throughout treatments.

My aunt and I hung out with her very good friend, L., a generally wonderful person who was being treated for ovarian cancer. Over lunch that I could not eat, L. casually said to me, “You know, it’s people like you [who work during treatment] that make it tough for the rest of us who can’t work. Employers see people like you working and believe everyone can work through treatment.”

That judgmental remark knocked the wind out of me.

I immediately felt shame and guilt.

Yes, I was one of the lucky ones, the one who could work during treatment. Nevermind, that this was no easy feat. I chose to work during cancer treatment because I had no choice: my husband and I were precariously close to homelessness and starving if I didn’t keep my employment.

(And as a side note, I did happen to want to work a little just to quench my miserable life with a sense of normalcy, the kind of normalcy a work routine would provide me.)

L. never made that remark again, and we spent lots of fun times over the years. Sadly L. eventually died from ovarian cancer. I’ve never harbored ill feelings toward her for that remark and, to some extent, I understood where it came from.

But I never forgot it.

Yes, I worked during cancer treatment, inadvertently becoming the cancer warrior archetype I never wanted to be. I was unaware of it at the time, but people perceived me as the stoic woman who could do it all — work two jobs, have chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously, and pay the mortgage. And, I hate to admit it, but I started believing that I could do it all.

Stupid pride. Stupid necessity.

I remained highly competent at my jobs, but working took a toll on my health. How could it not?

Working through treatment didn’t do my psyche any favors either.

And I must fess up: during treatment I was also guilty of being judgmental — against those who didn’t work. “It must be nice,” I jealously thought when talking with people who stopped working during treatment. “I wish I had that option.” I used to envy those who were retired or not working and being taken care of by a loved one. I’m ashamed to admit I had such divisive thoughts.

I guess wanting what someone else has is human. So is jealousy. So is pointing fingers.

Maybe the path to understanding each other isn’t as straight as we’d like it to be. It dips and curves. But we can still get to a destination of mutual respect and understanding.


Beth L. Gainer blogs at and has published numerous articles on her breast cancer experience and other topics. Most recently, she published a book titled Calling the Shots in Your Medical Care, designed to help patients navigate through the healthcare system and advocate for themselves. Gainer has been featured in various media venues, including Huffington Post Live. She can be reached at Twitter at @Bethlgainer.

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