Running For Your Life?

You’ve seen it. Walk for life! Walk (or run) for breast cancer! For lymphoma/leukemia/prostate cancer….

And all this is usually done under the open sky with no ozone layer. So, as I asked my oncologist when he checked to see if my melanoma was still in remission, shouldn’t it more appropriately be called, “Walk to get skin cancer?!” Given how little sunscreen some people wear, they would more likely come out of the experience with pink faces than pink ribbons.

It does get frustrating to see diseases du jour, though. The American public can only focus on one type of cancer per year, and the ACS has to find a way to make it seem sexy. If it works, then it’s good for the patients who have that particular type of cancer. But then funding isn’t so hot in other fields of cancer research, especially when ignorance still runs rampant.

For instance: California had a measure on the ballot a couple years ago to increase taxes on cigarettes, and channel the money to anti-smoking education and to cancer research. Someone I know voted against it because, “Everyone already knows that cigarettes cause cancer, so what need is there for more research?” With the implication being that all lung cancer patients were ex-smokers and justly deserved their fate. The majority of voters must have agreed with her, because the measure didn’t pass. If it had, more funding would have been available to find out how to treat and cure cancer that affects allergy sufferers, firefighters, and people who worked with asbestos.

I do understand the brave face some people put on. Wearing scarves over a bald scalp seems fine for some people, but I always found it to be kind of annoying. Putting on a scarf over hair that was growing back, I felt, brought attention to something that shouldn’t be an issue. My mother felt otherwise. By the time I was in remission and started to have hair again, she told me that I should wear scarves. I told her I didn’t want to, because it made me feel like a martyr. It wasn’t for my feelings, she explained: it was that other people felt uncomfortable looking at fuzz, and covering chemo-hair showed that I cared about their feelings. I checked with my grandmother, who confirmed the opinion. Well, nuts; what a nuisance. As soon as my hair was long enough, I stopped wearing the things. Enough was enough.

My feelings about having cancer might have been a little warped, however, by my complete health history. Most people, when diagnosed with cancer, treat it as the worst thing they have ever encountered in their life: a death sentence. And sometimes it can be; at the beginning of my treatment, my oncologist gave me 40% survival odds. But other than the occasional realization that something was wrong, my overall reaction to my diagnosis of “Stage III melanoma” (soon to be Stage IV) was: “Another one?!”

Perhaps the surgeon who found the melanoma cells expected more shock and awe, rather than conversation, as he searched for a mole, any mole (and didn’t find any). Certainly the insurance’s support nurse did, when she asked what she could do for me. “Could you find out how much my medication will cost?” is the question I had for her. I think she expected me to cry instead, or ask where the support groups were, where people could sit around in a circle bemoaning their fates. Possibly what I could have said to her was this:

“Look, lady. I’ve been dealing with depression with my entire life, and have an inconvenient tendency to faint at odd moments. I’m also epileptic, and have been since I was nine; I will be on medication my entire life. This is just one more thing, so the most helpful thing you can do for me is take care of the stuff your company deals with.”

I never did. I doubt she would have been any more helpful if I had.

So what’s the point of this rant? There’s not really much point of any rant, I think. Each person who has ever been diagnosed with cancer or has undergone treatment for it, deserves the right to decide whether she wants to wear a label like “patient” (not any more, thankfully), “sufferer” (not I), or “victim” (never on my lips), wear a scarf or not, or figure out how to get funding for her particular type of cancer. I’m not the only one under the age of forty diagnosed with cancer who has preexisting conditions; others like me might be terrific at fundraising or advocating for their causes (and welcome to it)—or they might completely fall apart. I’m just the one who felt like ranting on a website.

And the next time someone does a “walk to get melanoma” when they participate in a “walk for life,” I’ll be the one in SPF 30 with a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and long sleeves, handing out sunscreen instead of bottled water.

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