May 23, 2005
Cancer Double Binds
Reverend Linda Yates
People who care for women with cancer may say things that put the women in impossible situations. However, women with cancer commonly put others in a bind as well. Carers have often complained to me that nothing they say is received well. This is frequently true. Sometimes what is helpful on one occasion will be met with bitter resentment on another. It depends on the psychological space the woman is in. In my conversations in the Internet chat rooms, this becomes clear.
Appearance is a particularly thorny area. If someone says a woman with metastatic cancer is looking tired, depressed or not well, women sometimes express outrage as "How could they say something like that to me? Don't they know how much that hurts me?" Women can also get angry if they are told they look good. The response can range from "Don't they know how sick I am? Don't they care?!" to the suspicious, "What do they mean? Are they saying they expected me to be dead by now and I'm looking good for someone past their sell-by date?" Sometimes women who receive a compliment will say, "They think I'm making it all up!" On one day a woman may complain that her partner won't talk about death. On another day she might feel that to bring up such a topic is heartless and indicative of her partner's callousness.
I also have a certain amount of sympathy for oncologists. If they give women honest facts about their cancer, the women can be devastated and angry at the doctor for daring to tell them in such a heartless way. If oncologists don't give them the straight up facts, later when the woman gets sicker, the physician is accused of not telling her the truth and destroying her possibilities to make what time she had left more meaningful.
To those who care for a woman living with metastatic disease, I say walk carefully and do a lot of listening. Care for your own needs by setting up visits with someone you can debrief with. You are walking a hard, hard road with this woman; you can't do it alone.
To the women who are living with the reality of this disease, my advice is to cut others some slack. On a good day, it can be difficult to sort out one's own feelings about cancer; imagine how hard it is for others to figure out how you are thinking! You may need to leave behind a lifetime of socialization that says women can't say what they think. People will need to hear from you directly, and in as simple terms as possible, what you need from them. Only you can provide the compass for helping them negotiate through this landscape that is life with metastatic cancer.
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