Have I Told You I Was Never a Cheerleader?

I once told a woman I knew fairly well that I always get melancholy on the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis.

She said, wasn’t it a shame I couldn’t look at it another way — and be delighted and grateful for my survival? She looked at me expectantly, clearly hoping I’d see some kind of light, some better way of being.

I only felt worse. I already felt bad — and now I was feeling bad about feeling bad. Even I didn’t want to be around a loser like me.

Somebody else’s expectations of how you should be, act, feel. Your own expectations. If you ask me, they’re killers. They demand a simple, positive approach to life and the emotional range of a pep squad. They don’t like ambiguity or ambivalence, darkness or sadness, rage or guilt. When they tell you to “Give me a D!”, they’re thinking dee-fense, not depression or despair.

Those expectations (and their purveyors — the expectors? expectorants?) overwhelm you when you’re diagnosed with cancer. Be positive! Fight it! Never let’em see you sweat or cry or leak any other unattractive bodily fluids.

If you survive it all, then you’re supposed to emerge with a smile on your face, a song in your heart, a pump in your fist. Apres treatment, on the days I retreated into howling fetal position, I had the distinct vision of such a person, who looked unnervingly like Martha Stewart. She’d already moved past the petty annoyances of cancer and lethal drugs and radiation beams and scalpels and stainless-steel doom. In fact, wasn’t that her right over there — crafting a stunning centerpiece for her dining room table out of old chemo tubes? Why, yes!

(All of which brings me to the unavoidable question of why I should want to be Martha Stewart when I, personally, cannot stand Martha Stewart. But that’s a question for another day, when I will resume contemplating my many personality flaws.)

But, anyway, diagnosis anniversaries — when the melancholy settles in like a softly suffocating fog and disappoints everybody who’d like a more uplifting story. What to do?

I’ve finally decided the sadness is about the many friends I’ve had who have died from cancer. Why did I survive and they didn’t? There’s no fairness here, no justice. I was lucky and they weren’t. I have to live with that, knowing I’m fortunate to live with that, to live, period.

I’m also convinced that this sadness isn’t something to be avoided. I have to sit with it for a while and give it its due. I can’t explain it any better than the writer Oliver Burkeman does in this lovely essay in the Manchester Guardian. It’s the contrasts that give meaning and flavor to life, Burkeman writes. You can’t appreciate light without dark, life without death.

To hell with everybody’s simplistic expectations, including my own. I’ll keep company with this melancholy on my own. And later, if and when I feel like it, I’ll celebrate.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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24 comments… add one
  • Ruth,
    I’m sad you had to live that experience as a mother, partner, writer, woman & person people depended on. I’m sad it made you part of a “club” that means you’re always getting close to people who are leaving. I’m glad you’re still here though. Real glad.

  • You nailed it, Ruth! Is there any other disease so overwhelmed with perfomance pressure and feel good marketing? Cancerversaries are fraught with survivor’s guilt, sorrow, gratitude, anger and the entire spectrum of emotions.

  • Terri

    I lost my son to an accidental drug overdose on 9/11/05. As other people mourn the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I silently mourn the loss of my 18 year old son. I’ve found that I can’t avoid the sadness, but must spend the day with it, then kick it in the a#* and go on. Life is precious & hope you get to enjoy yours to the fullest for many more years. Thanks for your wise words & good luck on your journey.

  • M.K.

    Terri: Like Ruth, I am a cancer survivor, and everything about it was a rough experience. However, I would rather live through it one hundred more times than endure a day of what you have gone through. My heart goes out to you.

  • Ruth, beautiful piece. I never had much use for cheerleaders either. Thanks for pouring out you soul here, again.

  • Cindy A

    Glad you are smart enough to face your true feelings instead of succumbing to the pressure of what others expect.

  • Marjorie

    Thought you could appreciate this cartoon:
    http://xkcd.com/828/

  • ruthpennebaker

    Love the cartoon! Thank you.

  • Love this piece, Ruth! I hate it when people tell you how you should feel, think or act. You fee as you feel and you have to go with it. It’s like when we lose a loved one and people think we should “move on,” in what a month, a year, five, ten? I’ll be sad, dammit, if that’s what I feel on certain anniversaries until the day I die. I’ve learned to lean into it and ride it out. Good for you, too.

  • It seems like we need to come up with new ways to talk about cancer. I think you posted about this before how it’s always termed as a ‘fight against cancer’ or a ‘battle.’ I given that some thought and it just doesn’t seem to fit. I used to listen to Bernie Siegel a lot, but I liked his perspective on respecting your body and dealing with illnesses. Very different from mainstream.

  • I think everyone has their own way of dealing with these things and there is no right or wrong way. It’s your right to feel a little sad over the impact this had on your life and people you loved.

  • It is hard to lose people we love, cancer or not. I’m thinking the melancholy for you might not really be about that. Not that I would know what it’s about for you. At any rate, it just is. No one can tell you how to feel. Don’t should on yourself. Just be.

  • no effing way is sadness to be avoided.

    “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
    Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
    – Rainer Maria Rilke

    i worked as a poetry editor. all i know is the legitimacy of feelings and emotions. feel on. and make no excuses for it. ever. 🙂

  • Ruth,
    reading your thoughts brought to mind the lyrics from one of Carrie Newcomer’s songs:
    Sorrow is a constant companion
    We just learn to walk beside
    Keep on walkin’ when it whispers
    And don’t listen when it lies

    do you know Carrie’s work? I think you’d like what she does.

  • Sitting with sadness, while difficult, is underrated. And what’s the alternative? Always fighting. I think you’re wise, Ruth, to succumb to the emotion of the moment — for whatever reason — acknowledge it and know that it will pass too. All best to you.

  • Thanks for sharing. Such beautiful writing! I’m sorry you lost those friends to cancer. I’m glad you survived.

  • Ruth, thanks for writing about what people have a hard time expressing. I am glad you are here, and can write these words.

    Terri: I am so sorry for your loss.

  • Phil

    Ruth – it was great seeing you and Jamie today at the BCRC event. Needless to say I totally agree with you! Of course I am so glad you are survivor!

  • Merr

    Great expression of feelings, of non-judgment — of self. Love this.

  • Susan Johnston

    Good for you for owning your emotions instead of bottling them up or trying to feel something that doesn’t feel right to you.

  • Nancy Hazen

    I love this. I know my daughter (a BC survivor) feels the same way, and also feels a bit guilty for not being more upbeat or grateful. Thanks for expressing this so beautifully.

  • I do like the idea of sitting with the sadness. I tried to run from it for the first part of my life and realized that just made things worse. Sitting with it, accepting it, absorbing it — and trusting that the sun will shine again soon — makes it easier to deal with.

  • A beautiful post, Ruth. You feel how you feel and it’s nobody’s business but yours. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. She never wanted to go to any survivor group meetings or participate in the walk-a-thons. She just wanted to get it over with and go on living as best she could. She’s not a cheerleader, either.

  • Sheryl

    I’ve decided not to try to explain my melancholy around the anniversary of my own diagnosis. It’s just too damned hard. I’ve learned to keep it to myself and let it be.

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