According to the American Cancer Society, more than 15 million people in the United States have been designated as cancer survivors in 2016.
A few days ago, I met one of those survivors, a woman I’ll call Jo, at the gym when I was meeting with a staff member there. Jo came over to say hello when the staff person called her over for an introduction. She too worked at the gym.
As she leaned over to greet me, I immediately noticed Jo’s bald head and knew instantly, in the way we sometimes just “know,” that her hairless condition was not a fashion statement. Unlike that of the male staff member I’d been talking with, a bald head on a woman is often a telltale sign of cancer treatment.
Jo looked vibrant, was energetic, and seemed happy to chat for a few moments. In our short conversation, the staff member noted that Jo was being treated for cancer, at which point Jo interjected “breast cancer,” and quickly summarized the treatment she’d begun: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. The too-common triumvirate of cancer treatment. When she mentioned that she had just finished her rounds of Adriamycin, was moving on to Taxol, and would then have radiation, her words raced down the circuits in my brain, which arrived at the conclusion: triple-negative. The same type of cancer I had.
I didn’t confirm whether this was in fact what she was dealing with, but I did nod in recognition, explaining that I had gone through that same treatment and, holding up crossed fingers on both hands, was doing fine. She grinned, turned to the staff member, and joked about how someone had given her a breast prosthesis that squeaked. The staff member commented that Jo’s dog would certainly like that, and they both laughed. The conversation, brief as it was, was filled with laughter and jokes, and Jo went off down the hall in good spirits.
The last few weeks have also brought attention to another cancer survivor: Senator John McCain. His scenario is vastly different, not just because of his age or his previous diagnoses of melanoma. The glioblastoma discovered in his brain will, not too long from now, take his life. Nonetheless, he rallied and returned to Washington to cast a vote on the current proposals for revising our healthcare system.
These are the public faces of cancer patients — the ones that we, the public, expect, even demand, to help us conquer our own fear of a frightening illness.
Despite their outward appearances, however, we can’t pretend to know what either of these people – or any of the other 15 million cancer patients — look like or feel in their private moments because those aren’t the moments we see – or want to see. Those moments would render us fearful and helpless. In my own slog down Cancer Road, I can tell you there were many moments of terror and times when I just had to sit down and cry. But in public, I was that smiling, upbeat woman, making jokes about how the glow in my skin from the Adriamycin probably meant I was radioactive.
Are there moments of despair for Jo and John?
Will we see them?
What we also see is the public’s reaction to people given a cancer diagnosis. Well-meaning attempts at encouragement and humor in the case of Jo. Demands and expectations of performance by Senator McCain.
I admit to being slightly put off by the dog-toy joke, as it seemed to make too light of what I know to be a terrifying situation. But Jo didn’t seem bothered; she was even engaged in the joking. But that was her public face. As she walked away, I wondered how quickly the smile evaporated from her countenance.
I found myself angry at the responses to Mr. McCain’s announcement, which were of two varieties. The media focused on the theme of the soldier returning to battle and therefore deserving of the spotlight, which burdened McCain with having to play the hero. Many people posting on social media, however, were quick to disparage him for his stance on political issues, which seemed a version of kicking the man while he was down.
In both cases, the cancer diagnosis erased the individual and the focus became how each one was behaving in light of it. What society expects from cancer patients is the caricature – the upbeat smiling woman, makeup in place, chattering brightly about how well she’s doing. The upright and serious man, carrying on heroic business in the face of adversity.