Saturday, October 16, 2010
Being Sick is Personal
Another Guest Blogger, Enjoy
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, or someone you know has, you’re about to
enter something you probably never knew existed: illness culture. As you can see by the
existence of this blog and the thousands of other cancer-specific sites on the Net, having an
illness is a huge part of people’s lives, and as such, it becomes a part of their self-identity.
In this way, illness culture resembles any other group with a defining characteristic in
common, just like people of a certain religion, or motorcycle enthusiasts, or a clique of
And while many find their particular illness culture to be supportive and helpful through
their struggle, some can become sick only to find that they don’t “fit in” in with the
main line of thinking or expression associated with their group. Barbara Ehrenreich, a
breast-cancer activist, discusses this issue in her great essay, “Welcome to Cancerland.”
In the essay, she confronts the predominant feelings and modes of dealing with cancer that
she encountered in breast cancer culture, and how she ultimately did not identify with
them. In her mind, breast cancer’s “cult of pink kitsch” was infantilizing and infuriatingly
Ehrenreich’s defining emotion about her cancer was anger—anger at the impersonal
treatment by her doctors, anger at drug companies for offering harsh treatments with little
benefits, and anger at her fellow breast cancer sufferers for being unwaveringly cheerful in
their battle with cancer.
My point here is not to knock keeping a positive outlook when ill. As reported in The Cancer
Warrior, staying positive can have great benefits for people fighting cancer. My point is
that, like any other type of groupthink, illness cultures can be single-minded, and those
who don’t fit into the current line of thinking can find themselves excluded and alone—this
on top of the fact that they are already facing a serious illness.
In the end, sickness is incredibly personal, and all types of reactions to illness and ways of
dealing with it should be actively welcomed. It’s important that those facing illness, and
their loved ones, recognize this and internalize it. While some may deal with cancer by
distracting themselves, others may need time to grieve over their situation—even to feel
sorry for themselves.
In America, self-pity is often regarded as the worst type of emotion; we live by the “pull
yourself up by the bootstraps” line of thinking. This aversion to self-pity and the endless
positivism seen in many illness cultures is unrealistic and doesn’t reflect the range of
emotions people feel when confronted with cancer. While staying positive is helpful, it’s
also okay to express emotions besides optimism.
If you’re dealing with cancer or supporting a loved one, remember that it is okay for sick
people to deal with their illness in their own way. Discouraging this is counterproductive
and even harmful.
In her essay, Ehrenreich recounts posting on a breast cancer forum about how fed up she
felt with her doctors, treatments, and insurance company. The responses to her negative
attitude were quick and judgmental: “I really dislike you having a bad attitude towards
all of this, but you do, and it’s not going to help you in the least,” said one commenter.
Support groups are supposed to be just that—supportive of one another’s struggle with
cancer, not dismissive or judgmental. People experience a range of emotions as they come
to deal with facing cancer on a daily basis. Realizing your own approach to illness and
accepting others’ is essential to creating an illness culture that helps, and doesn’t hurt, its
About the guest blogger:
Joy Paley is a blogger for An Apple A Day and a writer specializing in medical coding for Guide
to Healthcare Schools.