Often, I will sit with a patient or a caregiver, and they will say something to this effect: “Everyone says how good I look or how strong I am. But I don’t feel that way. And it makes me (fill in the difficult emotion here): angry, sad, confused, or alienated. Sometimes, this response is a function of the other person needing to feel safer in the face of something as hard and potentially dangerous as cancer. The person reporting the observed strength, beauty, or efficacy needs to believe that their friend or loved one is unchanged. Because change is scary. It is also difficult to talk about.
But sometimes, the observer is saying it because the patient has made a choice that they didn’t realize they made. Sometimes the choice is effortless, sometimes it takes inconceivable energy to maintain. They made a choice to not be affected by cancer. To not be altered by this illness. To not give up a single element of the life they have, and to move on a singular path towards “life after cancer”. Where everything can go back to “normal”.
Now, I could talk about “normal” for a while. About what it is and how its powerful mythic presence alters the ability to cope with and move through the cancer experience and life, in general. But today, I am more interested in this unaltered place where some people choose to stand while living with cancer. The place of “I am strong and fighting and, in fact, winning against cancer, and it is not changing me. Not even a little bit. Not an iota.”
In some cases, this manifests very concretely. A person will continue to work full-time, to commit to activities with family and friends, to struggle to maintain physical appearances. It can also manifest in a more abstract way. So the idea that they hold of themselves (pre-cancer self) stands in direct opposition to who they are feeling they are in the moment or who they are ultimately becoming. As you can imagine, this is a tough spot to be in. It’s like a caterpillar pressing “pause” mid-metamorphosis, struggling to maintain the features of the caterpillar, as every cell in its being pushes forward to become the butterfly.
Without realizing it, the choice to rigorously maintain their pre-cancer self has lasting and profound effects. This choice reflects and reifies the beliefs, hopes and needs of those who are witnesses to their cancer experience, and creates a very narrow path on which to walk, a small space on which to land. In effect, the patient crawls up on a pedestal of their design and choosing, and quite often, instead of enjoying the view, comes to feel incredibly stuck.
Think of the statues of ancient Greece or Rome. Victors of war, leaders of the populus, the esteemed and idolized are idealized and placed upon pedestals. It is for good reason that this phrase has entered the vernacular. To be “put on a pedestal” now would mean to hold a person in a place of unrealistic esteem. To impose upon them an unrealistic expectation of perfection, whatever that might mean, and at the very least, an infallibility that renders them as better, stronger, or more.
Pedestals are narrow. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room up there. If you want to lay down or stretch out or stand on your head, you better know what you are doing. Because the people who come to observe the you on a pedestal don’t want to see something unexpected. They won’t know what to do with it if you are laying down up there, struggling to be comfortable, and they certainly won’t know what to do if you crawl down altogether.
There are simply moments and experiences in life that we do not and cannot choose. A soldier does not get to choose how they will function when returning from war. They do not choose what their feelings will be, or the extent to which they are altered by their experience, even as everyone they love looks to them to be the same as they were before. And while I generally reject the language of battle as it relates to the cancer experience, I see a similarity here. The cancer patient cannot choose these things, either.
We aspire to project a self that is invulnerable, wise, happy, strong. No flaws, no cracks. But when we are that person, we are also not relatable. Admirable, but not relatable. Not messy, or hurt or huggable. Things on pedestals are esteemed, precious even. But we put stuff up there and forget about them. They get dusty, we stop seeing them because we are not growing in a dynamic way with them.
This life is messy. Cancer is hard. Change is inevitable. It is also beautiful, and rich and worth it. If you are someone who has crawled up on a pedestal and who is not enjoying the view, not getting enough hugs, I welcome and encourage you to crawl down. The people in your life can take it. And in fact, I am going to bet that they’ll even like it. They will like knowing how to be helpful, supportive, and present in a way that they simply cannot be when everything is “under control” and “fine”.
Crawling down means asking for help. It means feeling tired, or scared or sick. It means not knowing what’s next but moving forward anyway. But here’s the thing–if you choose to stick, to stay on the “everything is ok” pedestal, all of these things are happening anyway, but you are living them all by yourself.