Recently, during a webinar I was moderating for SurvivingBreastCancer.Org, Jennifer O’Brien said something along the lines of “comparative suffering is a crock of shit.” The webinar was all about the amazing organization Soaring Spirits, which supports people grieving after their person has died and which I encourage all of you to check out and support. While living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) isn’t the same as grieving the loss of a loved one, so many of the facets of the experience overlap, as with most traumatic experiences and I’m always looking for resources to leave behind for my family.
That comment about comparative suffering hit me, though.
Before my diagnosis with MBC in 2017, I really didn’t understand this concept. Sure, when I wanted to be married (and during my divorce from my first husband), it seemed that every single person in the world was happily married. When we were struggling with fertility, it seemed that every single person in the world was pregnant or nursing a new tiny person. Somehow, during these struggles, I didn’t feel the need to measure my own experiences as compared with others or maybe I just wasn’t aware of doing that. As I’ve written about before, I didn’t reach out to connect with people experiencing similar struggles the way I have in the MBC Community since my diagnosis in 2017. I wish I had at times because now I understand how connecting with others in similar situations can really and truly change that experience.
While there are various definitions of this concept of “comparative suffering,” this is the one that resonates the most with me: Comparative suffering defines the tendency to judge the misfortunes of others through the prism of our own experiences. The operative word in that definition, to me, is “judge.”
We all look at the world through the lens/prism of our own experiences and even more so if someone else is going through something similar. As human beings, we can’t escape our own bias, our own upbringing and way of looking at the world. What we can do, however, is learn not to expect others to respond the same way or to experience life in the same way as we do. For me, this has taken some work and I’m still often puzzled when others react very differently from what I expect.
I remember so many times early in my diagnosis when I would read something about a scan or other piece of the MBC experience and immediately begin to try to figure out the root cause(s). For a long time, I asked a lot of questions in order to try to determine how not to be in the same boat as someone else. Or perhaps to get to the same place of stability or No Evidence of Disease (NED). While I know that I learned a lot in those interactions, I wasn’t asking just to gather information, I was creating categories in my mind. At other times, I didn’t ask questions to understand where someone was coming from because I had placed that person in a category and pre-judged that they didn’t have something to offer me.
Over time, while I still do often ask a lot of questions, it became very clear to me that comparing my own situation, my own physical response to medications or surgeries or side effects to other people’s responses wasn’t helping me. Yes, I did gather some valuable information and still do by asking questions. It’s what I now do with that information that has changed.
I’ve learned that too much of the MBC experience is pure chance, that we have no way to direct or control the outcome(s).
I’ve learned that we all handle a similar struggle very very differently and that’s ok.
I’ve learned that we all have different triggers evoking a variety of responses.
I’ve learned that there is no “right” or “wrong” way of doing this living with MBC thing.
I’ve learned that sitting with this MBC experience in the company of others creates precious intimacy.
I’ve learned that hearing “I know” as a response to a similar struggle can be all the validation needed.
I’ve learned that walking with others at the end of life is a privilege and often a calling.
I’ve learned to find purpose in the midst of devastation.
I’ve learned to find and cling to those people who have experienced loss and trauma because those are my people.
I’ve learned that a trauma or struggle or suffering can lead to empathy at an astonishing depth.
I’ve learned that extending grace to myself is just as important as extending grace to others.
And I’m still learning.
To me, continuing to learn, continuing to keep an open mind as much as possible, and continuing to enter into the suffering of others by helping and supporting others has been a key to living with MBC versus simply waiting to die. Taking a devastating experience like a terminal diagnosis and using that to connect with others has been the silver lining that helps me continue to get out of bed each day.