Telling people you have cancer doesn’t mean you’re weak
I finished a big project late last week and wanted a break, so I started binge-watching Murder in the First. I realize it’s television and not reality —hint, the SFPD are not the good guys, and when they kill unarmed Black men, they don’t get suspended without pay. But still.
At the beginning of Season 3 (spoiler alert), Hildy is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The doctor is a nightmare — no bedside manner at all. With Hildy standing by her desk, she says “Get your affairs in order.” When Hildy objects, “But you said the biopsy was just a precaution,” she snaps back “Well you don’t do a biopsy unless there might be something there.” Next thing that happens is that Hildy can’t get an appointment with an oncologist.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of a b.c. diagnosis, don’t be too scared by this. That’s not how it usually is. I’m sure there are places where the delivery of bad news is not done tactfully, but they’ll ask you to sit down. And for well-insured white women in San Francisco, they’ll ask if you have any questions and make sure you get the next appointment.
Predictably, Hildy doesn’t tell her partner, her daughter, her boss or anyone else about her diagnosis. Eventually Terry pulls it out of her, after she nearly gets them all killed. Of course her silence is vindicated when the diagnosis turns out to be wrong — which does happen, it happened to someone I knew. But that part of it really bothered me because I recognized it. That is an old trope and it runs deep.
When I found a lump in my breast, I didn’t say anything to anyone. I didn’t have a doctor, and asked a friend if she had a recommendation. She asked what was up and I tried to be vague. Eventually, she insisted and I told her but when someone else asked me about it, I was upset and told her not to tell anyone else. I didn’t want people to think of me differently. Especially, I didn’t want them to think of me as weak. When I was finally diagnosed, after the ultrasound and the biopsy, I tried not to mention it. It was just breast cancer after all, people get diagnosed with lots worse stuff every day.
I told my boss I might need a week or so off. She insisted I go on short-term disability. I felt guilty about that. A friend reminded me what our friend Stephen Fish used to say, before he died of AIDS in 1991. He said, “If you work for the capitalists, while you could be getting paid not to, you’re stealing from the movement and yourself.” I tried to hold on to that during my six months of surgery followed by chemo, when people tried to buck me up by telling me how they, or their friends, went to work every day during treatment. I wrote a novel and did some radio shows, but I couldn’t shake the idea that I was not being tough enough.
Ultimately, I let my friends care for me. They set up a Lotsa Helping Hands site and people signed up to take me to chemo appointments or come hang out during the bleak days after treatment. I wrote at that time about my ambivalence about needing and accepting help: “Our society increasingly divides people into helpers, helped, and helpless.”
I know that attitude has not changed, and so I was expecting Hildy’s reaction to be what it was. But I was upset by it because like it or not, television and movies teach people about cultural expectations. I worry that women who see that doctor’s behavior will be reinforced in their belief that health care providers will not help them, but will blame and berate them (I have plenty of those fears, and some of them have proved justified over the years). I worry that women who receive that dread diagnosis will feel as I did, that they shouldn’t talk about it, that there’s something shameful about having an illness and that needing support means you’re not tough enough.
So I want to say, there’s nothing weak about telling people what’s going on in your life. Your cancer is not your fault, it’s not a personal failing, and if it were, you’d still have a right to care.
Your friends will still love you even if you have cancer. So don’t be afraid to tell them. Sharing the burden makes us stronger.