I was at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) in early December, 2019, when a tweet was posted by Liza Bernstein referring to the “violence of cancer. ” At first, I thought I would disagree with the characterization and then, when I spent some time pondering the concept, I discovered that it resonates with me in several different ways.
Here’s the tweet …
I wasn’t able to attend the specific event she was at and referred to in this tweet, but I heard a lot about how wonderful and powerful it was.
And it got me thinking, pondering, ruminating about this violence of cancer concept.
First of all, the concept underlines that we human beings are not fairly matched against cancer. Cancer is capable of doing violence that robs us of our very humanity and it literally does that to each person who becomes its host. This is an excellent time to reiterate that the “fight” language emphasizes the chasm between patients and cancer in a wholly unhealthy way. Those of us who have the rogue cancer cells multiplying without remorse are wholly unequipped to defeat the inexorable march towards domination; all that modern science can do is throw roadblocks in the Cancer’s path and that doesn’t work for long.
Secondly, the concept of violence underlines and highlights the “trauma” of living through the experiences of cancer and the treatment. Each step is traumatic in so many ways and there isn’t sufficient information or understanding of how that ongoing trauma impacts every area of the patient’s life and circle. I’m not just referring to those of us who will be in treatment (aka ongoing recurring trauma), but also to those who have been told that their treatment is over. For men and women enduring the trauma of cancer treatment, the trauma is never over and the resources to deal with said trauma are sorely lacking.
Third, the concept captures the devastation in the aftermath. When a human being encounters violence or a “trauma,” the effects of said experience reach far beyond the actual trauma. The concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) highlights the brain and chemical changes that occur after a trauma is experienced as well as the ongoing affects. The long lasting effects of trauma has been studied with survivors of a military conflict. While living with a terminal diagnosis is quite different from surviving bombs and bullets, the actual experience of attempting to live after or during said experience is actually rather similar: nothing is the same and reminders exist everywhere, ready to pop out when least expected to wreak havoc.
Fourth, the concept of violence is illustrative in that the victims of violence are often blamed for experiencing violence by inviting or attracting it, just as cancer patients are often blamed for … what? Not preventing their cancer? Patient shaming is a thing just as victim shaming is a thing. For every person who shows empathy, there is at least one more who silently judges or maybe vocally judges. As an aside, the people who judge, silently or vocally, a cancer patient and assigns blame to the patient deserve to be water boarded or maybe buried alive or some other equally nasty torture such as chemo.
Fifth, just as violence against an individual affects their entire family, the violence of cancer shows no mercy to everyone it touches. Additionally, just as there are few resources and assistance to the family members of a person affected by violence, there are few options and little assistance to the caregivers, the family and the friends of people with cancer. The people who shoulder the vast majority of the burden of caring for their loved one and watching the relentless progressions and affects of the disease and treatment deserve medals and parades and keys to the city and a pile of money so they never have to work again. And yet, the isolation after a loved one passes only magnifies and intensifies the pain of loss.
Sixth, the isolation of those affected by violence is extremely similar to the isolation many with cancer experience. Just as those not exposed to violence are often visibly uncomfortable in the presence of someone who has been affected, so are the healthy people in the presence of someone who is dying of cancer. This response, often visible and usually demonstrated by those who seem least likely to react in this way, is horrific, demoralizing and heartbreaking. Many simply withdraw because this reaction is so painful.
Seventh, those who are affected by violence stereotypically respond in one of two ways: 1) by withdrawing from the world to protect themselves and others; or 2) by exhibiting anger towards themselves or others. These two responses are also quite visible in cancer patients to the outside world; however, the latter is often misunderstood. It’s probably the same for victims of violence as well. Living with this awful weight is difficult, you see. The fact that it is invisible to others only makes it worse. At some point, the frustration builds and builds.
Eighth, the response to those who suffer from PTSD or some other mental health affect of violence or cancer or something else is not to address the issues, but typically to medicate said issues away. The medical provider or layperson who is willing to weigh in and meet the victim of violence or cancer where he or she is at, is extremely rare. Most medical providers consider their job done once a diagnosis is given and treatment is completed. The aftermath is not their concern.
Ninth, violence, like cancer, does not discriminate. Neither violence nor cancer cares about degrees, acknowledges accomplishments, or has any idea what family a victim came from. Old and young, men and women, PhDs and people who didn’t graduate high school, slackers and workaholics … no one is safe.
Tenth and finally, the best resources for victims of violence and cancer patients are those that the people within the community create. Those who have been through the experience know best how to support those that are entering it now. While no two experiences are exactly alike, the ability to say … “I know how you feel, I’ve been there too,” is invaluable. For those of us who notice a gap, we figure out how to fill it.
While cancer and violence may be inextricably linked, cancer truly is the worst club with the best people as my dear friend, Emily Garnett is fond of saying. I’d never wish this experience on anyone; at the same time, I am forever grateful for many of the people I’ve met as a result. People who I likely never would have rubbed elbows with.