A little while ago, during the month of Pinktober, Rethink Breast Cancer shared this meme on Instagram.
The mission of Rethink breast cancer is embedded in their name, for people to rethink what breast cancer is and, if I’m allowed to extrapolate a little, to think beyond the pink fluffy stuff touted by the pink machine. They meet that mission in a variety of ways, including sharing factual information like this meme.
There are a lot of memes like this that many of us living with metastatic breast cancer share regularly. I do understand that some of them are shocking. Some of them are designed to be shocking. The shock factor should never be underestimated in terms of making a difference; it often jars people out of complacency.
For purposes of this blog post and my urging for people to stop comparing, the meme is not the story, the comments on the meme are the story.
At first, after the post went up, a few early stage survivors started commenting, talking about how the meme was shocking, that it made them uncomfortable, that they didn’t want to be reminded of their own danger of becoming metastatic. Some of the comments also contained an effort by the same women attempting to share their own experiences, that they too have been indelibly marked by their experiences with breast cancer, that their ongoing side effects have changed their lives forever and that scaring them isn’t accomplishing the goal of recruiting allies.
And then some stage IV women jumped all over them. Minimizing their experiences and shaming several of them for speaking up. Sometimes directly and sometimes covertly, many of the stage IV women objected to early stagers comparing their reality to the reality those of us with Stage IV live in all the time.
I’ve written quite often about how I feel ignored and sidelined by not only the charities focus on early stagers only but also how many in the breast cancer community who had/have early stage breast cancer are antagonistic towards those of us who are dying. My experiences, while not universal, contains some themes that resonate with many metastatic patients; for instance, the often significant divide between early stagers and those of us who are metastatic.
I don’t write about these things to shame anyone but to bring awareness and to hopefully encourage everyone to do better next time.
What hurt my heart about the exchanges in the comments on this meme on that particular day was the decided lack of empathy and compassion on both sides. Comparing does that. To compare your position to that of another person is literally preventing both parties from fully seeing the other person’s reality.
Are the experiences of metastatic patients worse? Maybe.
Is it horrible to be dying and watching your friends dying all around you? Absolutely.
Is it horrible to have your life upended? To no longer recognize yourself in the mirror? Absolutely.
Do many of the early stagers experience the same side effects as those of us who are metastatic? Yes!
What drove these points home for me was a public exchange in the comments between two friends of mine. These women didn’t know that I know both of them and I wasn’t planning to insert myself into the discussion until I saw one of my metastatic friends comparing the experiences of the metastatic patient to my early stage friend’s attempt to show how her life has been indelibly impacted.
Both of these women have had different experiences with cancer and yet both of them are living with the consequences of breast cancer, the treatment for breast cancer and figuring out how to have a new/different life afterwards. Yes, my metastatic friend has a terminal diagnosis and watches friends die every day. Yes, my early stage friend will probably outlive both of us and she knows that.
I commented on the exchange, highlighting my relationships with both of them and affirming how my early stage friend is an ally to the metastatic community.
Because she is. She’s one of the women who has experienced early stage breast cancer, who knows her risk of becoming metastatic, and who leans into the issues that we metsters face.
We need to recruit men and women who have been touched by breast cancer who will outlive those of us who are dying. This is the obvious consequence of dealing with a terminal diagnosis. It means our life expectancies are cut horribly short.
Compassion and empathy are more important than winning the comparison game.