In September 2008 I received a piece of news that no-one wants to get. My mother had cancer.
Breast cancer to be precise. It’s a difficult thing for anyone to see their parents ageing, but obviously the “c” word has a significant impact on both those who have it and their families. I’m sure you know what I mean – we all know people who are affected by cancer and the difficulties people can have adjusting to such a reality. Given the destruction and devastation cancer often leaves in its wake, it is little wonder that the mere mention of it often creates panic, fear and a sense of helplessness.
My mother has actually not been well for several years and it has been a sufficiently tough task, emotionally at least, to see her increasing incapacitation not only sap her physical strength but her appetite for life. The cancer diagnosis came at a difficult time, coinciding as it did with both myself and Mum losing close friends to cancer in the previous few months. Inevitably, added to her existing difficulties, the unwelcome infringement of malignant breast neoplasm into her life caused mental torture I can only imagine. What I know and felt acutely was how deep a depression she entered into – something that in many respects was far more debilitating than any of her physical problems.
Fortunately, she underwent an apparently successful operation within weeks of receiving the diagnosis and post-operative investigations suggested the best of outcomes had been realised. Obviously this was a relief to myself as well as the rest of my family.
What struck me at the time was how some of Mum’s friends (she knows many such well-meaning but ultimately misguided people) responded to the news she had cancer not by offering emotional support but instead with bullish fighting talk, telling her how she was going to “fight this thing” and “beat it”. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their desire to see Mum back to relative health. But they misjudged both Mum’s character and the nature of her struggle. Firstly, she’s never been a fighter and other than an egg she has never successfully beaten anything in her life. Secondly, her struggle was not against cancer itself but the emotional challenges that were an indirect but inevitable consequence. What she needed was a bit of support, even encouragement, to help her with her day to day life rather than people delivering sermons advocating determined resistance. I didn’t feel her “comforters” appreciated this at all.
I also found it rather amusing when people described Mum as “brave”. That really was absolute rubbish, based on the misconception that anyone with cancer must necessarily be filled with heroism and courage, enduring the various challenges cancer presents with stoicism and dignity. She was not at all brave, and I wouldn’t have expected her to be; after all, having worked with and personally known others afflicted with cancer I have yet to see anyone whose initial reaction to receiving terrible news is a demonstration of courage. No – instead the normal reaction is one that demonstrates more naturally human traits.
Mum wasn’t brave at any point. She was just Mum. The same Mum I’ve known for over 30 years. The cancer didn’t change her, and make her suddenly super-human or help her find reserves of courage she hadn’t known existed. Like me, she’s always been an emotional person and she responded to having cancer in the only way she knew how. I hope I was able to be the kind of empathetic sounding board for her feelings, frustrations and anger that she so obviously needed.
It wasn’t bravery that led her to inform her family and friends about her illness. Neither was it bravery that led her to accept medical intervention and undergo surgery. It was, if anything, a fear that paralysed her into allowing others to take the lead in making decisions for her well-being. But ultimately she was just doing what was necessary as she was swept along by events over which she had no control.
I disliked people referring to Mum as “brave”, a “fighter” or “a winner” – not merely because they were wrong but because they were dehumanising her. Such people had pre-determined what the acceptable response to cancer should be, and they recreated Mum in their image. They wanted to admire someone who stood up to and won the victory over this terrible illness, not support someone to cope with its day to day realities – and so insisted Mum conformed to their idealised view of the “cancer victim”.
And that’s something else I hated, although it came less from people close to Mum: that of believing those with cancer are necessarily “sufferers”. It is true to say Mum had breast cancer; I’m not sure she suffered from it. And, while she was not particularly “brave”, she was never, ever a victim and wouldn’t describe herself as such. If it’s dehumanising to attribute false strengths to an ordinary person simply trying to cope with life, it’s a far worse thing to paint someone as a victim. After all the role of the victim is a particularly disempowered and stultifying one and definitely not in keeping with Mum’s personality and outlook.
People with cancer are not victims any more than they are necessarily brave. And while cancer, or any illness, can have a profound effect upon people’s lives, rarely does it fundamentally change people. Mum refused to define herself by her illnesses, so why should anyone else?
Why am I discussing this? Because, more recently, the supposedly-treated cancer has reappeared and reasserted itself. Fortunately, Mum has been able to undergo further surgery and – hopefully – the treatment will this time prove more successful in the long-term. But we can’t possibly know that for sure and obviously the recurrence is something that naturally will remain at the back of our minds.
Whatever happens in the next few months and years – and anything might – Mum will always be Mum. And she will always be a full human being – incapable of playing either the role of hero or that of the downtrodden victim.