When I was working on my zine a few weeks ago, I started making a list of “unhelpful things my therapist said,” while I was waiting for – and then after – my diagnosis.
I scratched the list from the zine, partially because I don’t think my therapist meant any ill will, but maybe it’ll appear in a future edition.
One specific thing was talking about her dog having cancer, which — though I do love dogs — just felt odd and not all that comforting. But hey, I am super glad her dog is OK now! Dogs are wonderful and important! And mine is one of my top nurses — I am grateful for him every day…
When people are confronted with something harsh — with you telling them news that is uncomfortable for you both, and possibly startling to them — they try to connect with you on whatever level they can.
That initial impulse is a good one, a human and empathetic one. It’s not one I want to quash or make people question. But sometimes it turns in interesting directions, some less productive and helpful than others.
But still, I think the fact that you’re two people talking about this difficult thing usually trumps any weirdness that might come out of someone’s mouth.
Personally, I’d rather have someone keep talking to me about things than bite their tongue or stay away due to being afraid to say the wrong thing. However, there is a particular line of conversation that I’ve found myself in — whether with my therapist or a colleague — that just doesn’t really get us anyplace too productive.
Here’s one of the things my therapist said immediately after I told her that yes, I had invasive breast cancer:
“But… you eat so healthily — organic stuff and hormone-free dairy and fruit and vegetables!”
Um. Why yes, yes I do, or mostly have. I love an occasional bag of Doritos every couple months (who doesn’t?!), but my diet is heavily plant-based, mid-high in fiber and low in red meat. I was vegetarian for almost half my life.
Though my body was under stress from another unrelated condition this past year, that condition meant I needed to work with a nutritionist, who felt I was already doing really well, despite my limitations. And no doubt, I was eating “clean”-er than ever. According to my BMI, I’m not overweight, I get a healthy/moderate amount of activity, and I’m still under 55.
I haven’t used cosmetics or personal care products with parabens or other possible estrogen analogs for over a decade (um, can I get my money back for that extra cash I spent to do that?). I generally don’t heat or store things in plastic containers, etc. etc. etc. …even those things where the verdict is still out, I’ve erred on the side of being careful. We even had a family test for the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations a decade ago, and nada!
If the breast-cancer risk-factor list was a quiz, I would ACE THAT SHIT, or at least 95% of the controllable factors. At least two of the Drs. I’ve seen have said as much (possibly not using the word “shit”). But at the same time, they’ve also said that breast cancer rates are on the rise for younger and younger women who are “doing everything right.”
In my last session, my therapist was kind of set on figuring out that me getting cancer was the result of one-of-two-things (both beyond my control). I don’t know why it was so important to her to try to find “the answer,” but honestly there is just NO way we can know that. And other than preventing recurrence, it’s not even that useful at the moment.
As much as we know now about cancer risk (and I’ll likely learn much more about my specific genetic profile over the next two weeks), risks are still percentages, calculated in aggregate. Lives and bodies are still incredibly messy and unpredictable things. We are not machines.
I think that trying to figure out a “why” is a natural impulse. A few nights when I haven’t been able to sleep, it’s way too easy to fall into the I-know-this-is-illogical-but-what-did-I-do-wrong/to-deserve-this trap. But it IS a trap, for the most part.
We want to figure out the exact why or how because we want the world around us to have some order. We want to think that if we eat or don’t eat this or that or do or don’t do some particular thing, we’ve made ourselves safe.
As much as we know the world is not fair — more brutally unfair for many people much more than for me — there is still a part of us that wants to believe that if we just check all the boxes on the “health” checklist, we are somehow insulated from illness.
But we live in human bodies. Bodies are great at healing, but they are also often the things that break down, make us most vulnerable, that will always, ultimately, force us to face that vulnerability and let go of our stubborn idea that a strong will can overcome everything. Will can do a hell of a lot, but bodies are just bodies, and sometimes things do just happen — despite all our best efforts.
Though we can spend some energy looking for answers and ways to keep this from happening to us or others again, we cannot, ultimately overcome our human-ness, and the vulnerability that comes with a body.
Sometimes, despite all the efforts we make to protect ourselves — things do just happen.
At that point, it’s only in how we respond that we have much control, and that we can choose to use it to reflect on vulnerability, compassion and interconnected-ness. I think that’s the best we can often do. And that’s still important.