you don’t have to be

“I worked through MY cancer treatments!” a coworker (Linda) said Tuesday.  The context was this.  Another coworker, let’s call her Pat, was talking to Linda and me and the about seeing a family member at a funeral.  The family member was super skinny and Pat was speculating on whether the family member has developed an eating disorder.  “Is she sick?” I asked.  “I mean, does she think she’s healthy?” “Oh, I don’t know” Pat replied, “She’s working still.  At the Cheesecake Factory.”  “Working doesn’t mean she’s not sick,” I said to Pat. “Not these days.  I have a friend who recently worked straight through all her really intense breast cancer treatment…” I was cut off by Linda “I worked through MY cancer treatments!”  “Yes,” I said, “because that’s what people do if they can or when they need to.  If they don’t have a partner who is employed enough or enough sick time or grown up siblings who can come take care of them.”  Linda nodded emphatically.

The conversation went on for a bit about Linda’s cancer treatments (some month’s of radiation) and my friend’s (18 months of infusion chemo).  I started to head back to my desk and Linda followed.  She caught up and said “I wasn’t gracious about it.  About coming in to work. I complained all the time about how bad I felt.”  I was horrified that she had even used the word gracious.  “Seriously?  You were getting radiation therapy for cancer!  Fuck that, the hell with gracious.  You don’t have to be.  I think it’s fair to say you can complain about cancer.”  She laughed.  I went on.  “My little brother has this really great concept.  It goes like this.  Our mother has this habit of doing nothing or postponing treatment or assessment when she’s sick, even when she’s really sick.  But she complains.  Oh boy does she ever.  She’ll walk around complaining non-stop.  As an adult, my brother’s attitude is now ‘if you won’t get seen, then suffer in silence!’  But if someone is sick and is doing what they can to treat it or to address it, then they can complain.”

I’m happy I had a chance to express this at work and to express this to this particular person.  The reason is this.  Pat and Linda have both voiced their opinions that illnesses (of certain vaguely defined types) can be overcome through willpower alone.  They would not put it like that but that is the crux of the belief underlying what they’ve said.  And it’s been painful to listen to.  It was good to have a chance to have a different kind of discussion.

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  1. R. G. Maines

     /  September 2, 2010

    Wow, this hit home on a number of levels.

    I’m constantly being scolded by friends that I shouldn’t be doing so much, pushing myself so hard, seeing as how I live with such a painful combination of disabling diseases and conditions, but I feel I have to push ahead, no one else is going to pick up and take care of my responsibilities. I also want to feel as ‘normal’ as I can and I want to ‘contribute’ as much as possible.

    I try not to complain about my condition because I don’t want to burden others, but then that can backfire because people begin to expect so much more from you than you are really able to give, because they don’t understand the depth of your disability.

    I agree with your younger brother… my hubby walks around complaining about every little ache or pain, if he has a hangnail he’s whining about it endlessly… but when I ask him if he did anything about it, he tells me ‘no’. I figure if you have the means available to remedy or treat the situation and you choose not to, then ‘suffer in silence’.

    I really think I could not have the patience you’ve shown, in dealing with these two women, if they have expressed the idea that one can ‘think away’ their suffering if only they have the right attitude and practice strong ‘will power’.

    Thanks for this blog! 😉

    • I don’t know how much patience I have for their attitude (the two women I work with) – it really gets me down. It’s so prevalent, they are just voicing something that is there socially. In some ways, their voicing it gives me a chance to address it, which is so much better than the unstated acting on that is the way its usually encountered. You know? But it does get me down. Way down sometimes.

      You should hear my brother. Man does he go off. I can’t say that I blame him. I couldn’t live with my mother’s malarky – she’s just riddled with it. Even serious illnesses – it’s this nurse cred thing. Like “I soldier on!” She went to work and worked, god I think more than one shift on a broken foot (she injured it – this was not a mysterious “golly I don’t know why my foot hurts” this was a mom fell while dancing and something went “crunch” injury) before the unit staff literally tackled her, threw her on a stretcher, and xrayed it. I guess they got sick of the limping, wincing, and complaining without addressing the injury too. For the love of god, put some fucking ice on it! Put it up! Wrap it! Check to see if it’s broken! Lord almighty, whatever’s wrong with it, it’s not going to get better walking around on it! Anyhow, she’s that type. The attention that goes with the pain, the positive attention that goes with “soldiering on”, and (this is important) the not addressing it because that’s for wusses – all fits into her pathology. The bad thing is that it also fits into our culture of being strong and independent and all that, so behavior like hers (and dare I say your husband’s?) doesn’t always immediately stand out as being as odd as it should.

  2. R. G. Maines

     /  September 2, 2010

    I agree with your assessment completely.

    It’s almost as if people want it both ways though… there are those who tell you they don’t want to know what your aches and pains are, they don’t want to hear how you feel, they want you to silently deal with your issues and keep performing, but then there are those who scold you for doing just that.

    In the case of my husband and several other people close to me, they have a diagnosis, they have been given medication to use as a prophylactic treatment, but they refuse to take it, then they carry on endlessly when symptoms of their diagnosis effect them. I’m constantly telling them, if I had a pill I could take that would prevent my chronic pain and all the symptoms of my disability you could bet your butt I’d be taking that medication religiously!

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