Saturday, February 22, 2014

Please don't call me a cancer "survivor"

It embarrasses me every time. Some acquaintance of my husband shares a cancer diagnosis -- their own or that of a loved one -- and he tells them, "You know, Sue had cancer."

I did, although it's not as bad as it sounds. I had papillary thyroid cancer five years ago. At my age, papillary cell thyca has a 99%+ 20-year survival rate. You read that right: 99%+. There was no chemotherapy and subsequent nausea. I kept my hair. No external beam radiation. I faced only one surgery.

Most importantly, I was never in real fear for my life.

The surgeon took out my thyroid. A month later, I swallowed a radioactive iodine pill to take out any stray cells. It came with a plastic bag in case I threw it up* and a set of instructions to avoid zapping anyone else while isotopes oozed out the pores for a few days.

Best sick day excuse for work ever: "I can't come in. I'm radioactive."

Yes, there were risks. I could have lost my vocal cord nerves or parathyroids. No surgery is 100% safe. Still, it wasn't terrible. I have a scar you can barely see and a high daily dose of thyroid replacement hormone. I'm on year 5 of a 20-year post-treatment monitoring plan.

I don't speak for others who've had thyca, and you should never tell someone who's had it that they had the "good" cancer. That's like telling them you gave them the "good" punch in the mouth because you only split their lip and didn't knock out any teeth. It still sucks. It just sucks less. 

But I cringe that I am sometimes thought of as a "cancer survivor." When I look up the word "survivor," it says "one who survived, especially a person remaining alive after others have died" (emph. mine). While I might have been one of the tiny minority for whom thyca is deadly, the odds were against it. There were no discussions of 5-year death rates in the double digits. I have no reason now to believe it will recur.

Calling me a survivor gives me too much credit. It implies a 15-round slugfest instead of a first-round knockout punch. It implies hardships I didn't endure, depths of bravery I didn't have to plumb. I don't want to compare your pitched battle with my minor skirmish, to be the type who shows up to a funeral and says to the heartbroken widow, "I know exactly how you feel. I had a dog die once."**

I don't know exactly how you feel. Thyca wasn't the most fun I'd ever had at a rodeo, but it's not the worst I've ever dealt with. So please, don't call me a survivor. My heart goes out to those who are fighting steeper odds. They are the survivors.

* So I could take it back to them to retrieve -- talk about a bad day at the office.

** Happened to a friend of mind. No lie.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Words I hate: "lazy" and "excuses"

I was in the weight room at the YMCA one day where a woman was lifting the lightest weights possible. No, I wasn’t monitoring her workout -- just following her on the machines and adjusting the weights for myself to the nearly-lightest ones.

Although her workout was none of my concern, she suddenly began talking to me about why she didn’t lift more weight. She seemed almost apologetic, as if she feared I were judging her. She had survived an auto accident that nearly killed her and left her paralyzed at the time. She had battled back from fucking paralysis, and 10 pounds on a machine was a victory for her. And she felt the need to explain herself to me, a total stranger.

I think I stumbled through some reassurance like, “we all do what we can.” I wondered why she felt the need to tell me this. Whether she thought I might have thought she was lazy, or just making excuses.

Lazy. Excuses. Two words I despise when they’re bandied about in the context of fitness. Words that disrespect others’ real limitations, barriers and even just their own damn priorities.

That’s why I bristled at this post over on Obesity Panacea that initially had a reference to "Lazy Susans" as annoying creatures at the gym. Yay, Peter for taking that part of it down!* Sure, screamers and lounge lizards at a gym interfere with others’ enjoyment of it, but how does someone doing a light workout hurt anyone? Is there a sign on the door saying “Crossfit enthusiasts only?” Do they issue heart monitors at the front desk so they can kick out anyone at less than maximum aerobic intensity?

Is it so important to judge those not working to full potential that you are willing to denigrate those with barriers you can't imagine?

I think Carrie Patrick said it better than I can, but you never know what someone else’s story is. I’ve been to the gym with neck pain so severe that I was nauseous and dizzy. From the outside I looked fine. You might have thought I was “lazy.”

Yes, sometimes I’m lazy and sometimes I make excuses. I know when this is the case. I also know when I’m tired or hurt or when life’s just getting in the way of my workout. You can’t tell any of those things by looking at me.

Two words I'd like to see banished. They hurt, and there are better ways to motivate people.

*Epilogue: As noted above, after feedback from myself and one other person, Dr. Peter Janiszewski responded to our comments and deleted the offending portion of the post. Kudos and thanks to him for that.