28 January 2019

Virtuous Cancers

I'm not sure if it's as a culture or as a species as a whole, but we are not great at empathy.
People (understandably) want to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm, and part of that is the magical thinking that if we do everything The Right Way, then The Bad Things won't happen.

Consider the way we treat victims of sexual assault. She was raped because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people wearing the wrong thing. This thinking makes a person feel safe. It won't happen to ME because I will be careful not to do the wrong thing.
Blaming the victim gives us a sense of safety.
If bad things can just HAPPEN then they can happen to you or to me, then no one is safe and my goodness how will we sleep at night.
There are the virtuous victims of course, the ones that were wearing the right thing and it was the middle of the day and they were tackled by a stranger and ok in this one specific circumstance we will provide full empathy but mostly we will look for ways that this could have been prevented by the victim of the crime.

I should not be surprised that Keep Me Safe Magical Thinking applies to cancer too, but it took being diagnosed myself for me to notice it. You have cancer but you smoked or you drank or you spent too much time in the sun or you contracted HPV or you grew up too close to a chemical plant.
I won't get cancer because I am keeping myself safe.
There are virtuous cancers. People are sympathetic to children's cancer. The pancreas seems to get a pass. Leukemia, lymphoma, those get to happen to you without too much examination of what you did to deserve it. If you have the Right Cancer, then you are worthy of an entire dose of empathy.

I have melanoma.
It is not a Sympathetic Cancer.
I must have earned it somehow.
Did I get really bad sunburns as a child?
Do I tan?
Well even if I didn't I'm very fair skinned so that makes sense.
Did I get my skin checked every year?

And listen.
Not only do I stay out of the sun and stay careful and get my skin checked every year, but I have melanoma without a primary site, with the best guess being that it developed internally, rendering it undetectable until it was metastasized to other sites.
If we are going around assigning Cancer Virtue Scores, that is pretty fucking virtuous.
It also doesn't fucking matter.
At all.

Cancer is never fair, and no one ever deserves it, and that includes people who drink too much and people who smoke and people who have sex and people who enjoy sitting out in the sun.
My childhood sunburn would not mean that I deserve melanoma.
Maybe a childhood sunburn DID give me melanoma; I don't know. I'll never know.

Try to move through this world with an understanding of how you react to the bad things you encounter.
We all want to keep ourselves safe from harm, but in doing so, we blame people for the harms that befall them.
And that's shitty.


  1. I have noticed this with things like reactions to someone having a heart attack. Someone has a heart attack, and there is the immediate trial: either the verdict is "Well, he smoked / drank / didn't eat well / didn't exercise much / didn't take care of himself" or else it's an indignant/shocked "And he exercised and ate well!!"---as if bad things can't happen to people if they Do The Magic Things.

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    2. ...and as if people DON'T Do The Magic Things, they DESERVE the heart attacks / etc.

  2. Thank you for this. I had sex, and subsequently got HPV related cervical dysplasia, and then 20 years later, got anal cancer. No one wants to hear my response when they ask what kind of cancer did I have? If they HAVE heard of anal cancer they think of Farrah Fawcett and her death at 62. It is definitely NOT a virtuous cancer and certainly not a part of the body that people want to talk about.

  3. yes, to every single word. I think of all the people who eat only organic, etc., thinking it is the magic bean, and who scoff when I don't buy organic, even when there is so much "research" on which fruit/vegetables carry more potentially carcinogenic materials. I remind them, as gently as I can (because I am fucking irritated at this point), that I grew up in an agricultural area, so even if I ate only organic food my whole life, I was still breathing pesticides involuntarily since birth. So, yeah, no one can control for anything, really, and, therefore, all illnesses (including mental illness) are without virtue or stain, they just are.

  4. Yes. A dear friend of ours had cancer--not lung cancer--and people were quick to point out that he enjoyed cigars. And hot dogs. WTF?

  5. This is so very true. In a way it's sad, that people are so desperate to "prove" that something couldn't happen to them because they're doing it right (as if that were possible), but it's also infuriating when something happens to feel blamed for it happening, on top of everything else.

  6. Thank you for writing this. It is so true. I'm glad you're posting so much. Vanessa @doingokay

  7. This. So very much, this. Hugs and love.