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Breast Cancer: Is it a Fight?

When I was fully immersed in treatment, I went out on a really big limb and broached a subject that had been on my mind since the time of my breast cancer diagnosis. It took me a while to bring it up because it’s, well, it’s anti-establishment — in a BIG way.

Here goes: I never saw my experience with breast cancer as a “fight.” There. I said it.

I mentioned this to a few people who responded either by gasping or by boo-hooing my belief, assuming that my outrageous notion was a by-product of chemotherapy or pain medications or just the general delirium that comes with a cancer diagnosis.

However, my opinion was not derailed by the naysayers. I still fervently believed that I was never engaged in a fight with breast cancer. Was it awful? Yes. Was it a struggle? Yes, of course. Was it a long haul? Absolutely.

But, I have still never engaged in a “fight.”

Omnipresent in our culture are cancer “fighting” messages, like “cancer-fighting strategies” and “cancer-fighting foods” and “cancer-fighting treatments.” People told me to “fight” or “keep fighting” or “fight the good fight” as if I were Muhammad Ali.

Even though it always made/makes me cringe, I fully acknowledge that these “fighting” wishes came from very well-meaning people, intending to encourage me and give me strength throughout the wretched experience.

Frankly, the thought of “fighting” makes my stomach turn. Quite simply: I’m not a fighter.

Now, that’s certainly not to say that I’m passive. Far, far from it. In fact, the image of myself as passive makes me laugh out loud. I’m assertive. Strong. Determined. Forthright. I stand up to bullying and don’t take S**T from anyone.

I know quite a few people who are “fighters.” They love to pick a fight and then go full throttle. Yelling. Screaming. Smoke coming out of their ears. You look at them and it seems as if they are seething, just waiting for the next battle. Always one word away. I have never in my life understood how someone could live this way.

If I haven’t thrown you over the edge and you are still reading, please allow me to clarify that fighting is very different from the emotion of anger. Anger is, I believe, a very healthy emotion. When I’m really ticked about something (which does happen on occasion), I acknowledge it, welcome it, thank it, and then politely ask it to leave. Anger isn’t something that I’m fond of holding for long periods of time.

So, if I’m not “fighting,” what did I do during those grueling months of treatment?

I harnessed energy. I found silver linings and focused on thinking positively. I laughed whenever possible (mostly at myself). I rested. I allowed the treatments to eradicate cancer from my body. I learned. I grew. I tried things that I’ve never done before (e.g., giving myself IV fluids, getting fitted for a custom bustier bolus, writing).

Fighting, to me, has a tremendously pejorative connotation.

Why add insult (fighting) to injury (cancer)?

My philosophy is to focus on the positive and thereby render the negative inconsequential.

And another thing: In all of my years as a cardiac nurse, never once did we (nurses, doctors, etc.) tell patients with cardiovascular disease to “fight.”

Why, I wonder, are people with cancer the only patients who are told to “fight”? I’ve never understood this.

As a hospice nurse who has cared for many cancer patients at the end of their lives, I wondered whether they were somehow to blame because they “lost the fight”? It almost seemed punitive to suggest that they “lost.” As if they had something to do with it. It was never suggested that patients with vascular disease, for example, “lost” some kind of “battle.”

There is certainly no right or wrong here. People choose how they will handle their own circumstances and disease process. My fundamental hope is that no matter which road is chosen that you are able to find Silver Linings (inside the fighting ring or out).

Hollye began writing as a way to discuss her journey with breast cancer. She believes that breast cancer happens within the ecosystem of family, friends, and community. Consequently, she decided to take the holistic approach and write about breast cancer with style, humor, and silver linings. Hollye writes from the uniquely candid perspective of both her personal and professional experiences. She is a pediatric and adult palliative care nurse and social worker with graduate degrees in bioethics and child development. Hollye has worked as an educator, clinician, trainer, and consultant at the City of Hope National Medical Center, the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital, the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She speaks nationally about bioethics, grief and bereavement, and a family-centered approach to facing life-threatening illnesses. You can follow her blog at The Silver Pen, email her at hollye@TheSilverPen, or follow her on Twitter @hollyejacobs.

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