Why We Shouldn’t Judge: What is Strength or Bravery, Anyway?

Last year, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation and was very quiet about the whole thing. She put her head down and got through it without saying much of anything. At the time, it seemed like I was more upset about it than she was (I mean jeez Mother, I’d already informed you that you were not allowed to get it, and you were not following directions!).

Meanwhile, my diagnosis has upended my entire life. I’m off work. I’m telling everyone and their dog what this experience is like. Was she braver than I am for pushing through without saying a word? Should I be quiet or attempt to work through my treatment? Would that make me stronger? Or am I braver than my mom for sharing my experience? What is strength, anyway?

A lot of people get cancer. I’m sure everyone reading this has been touched by it in some way or another — if not personally, then by someone you know well. Five girlfriends of mine had/have it (four breast, one thyroid). My mom, two aunts, and two grandmothers had it (all breast). My cousin had lymphoma. And there are lots of acquaintances, too.

Yesterday, my earliest childhood friend came to visit. She had a different type of cancer at 29, and she handled it differently than my mom and I did. And last night, I talked with two friends who currently have breast cancer as well. Emotionally we’re all coping in different ways, and on top of that, we all marveled at how different our treatment regimens are. Three different women with three entirely different treatment plans, all tailored to our specific types of breast cancer. Thank God for modern science and how far we’ve come.

To me, one of the biggest lessons of this experience is we should never, ever judge another person or the way they handle a diagnosis like cancer. No two types of cancer are the same, no two people are the same, and no two people handle their diagnosis the same way. No one is stronger or braver than anyone else.

Some things make my experience worse, and some things make it better. The overall picture is that it is different, how I handle it is different and there is no “right” or “strong”  way to handle cancer, or anything else in life.

  • Getting cancer in your 20s or 30s is more serious than getting it later in life . . . AND I caught my cancer earlier than many people catch theirs and my survival outlook is far better than other people’s.
  • Losing my breasts and all my hair in the prime of my physical life is devastating . . . AND my hair will grow back and I am a candidate for reconstruction.
  • Having cancer when you have small children is different than if you’re single or have grown children  . . . AND I already have an amazing child, and I have not been robbed of the experience of motherhood.
  • Having cancer when you’re a single parent is scarier than when you’re married or have a partner you trust  . . . AND if something happened to me, my child does have a father and wouldn’t go into foster care, which would be way worse.
  • Having a double mastectomy, chemo, and radiation is different than having just one or two . . . AND my chemo regimen is not as aggressive as it could be, so it won’t be as hideous as it could be.

This list could seriously go on and on, and I am making this list specifically to shine a light on the fact that if any of these things were different, my experience would be entirely different than what it is now.

Everyone’s cancer, and their experience of it, is different. It differs by the age you get it, what type it is, the stage it is, the treatment you have, your support system, your marital status, whether you’ve had or want children, and your experience with the healthcare system.

No person’s way of handling their pain – emotional or physical – is any better or worse than anyone else’s. No one is stronger or weaker. We are all different, and we all handle things differently.

In the hospital and at every visit since, doctors and nurses have asked me to rate my pain on a level of 1-10. In the hospital I had a really hard time with my medications. They couldn’t seem to get my pain under control; if a medication worked to control the pain, it caused unbearable nausea.

At one point a nurse came into the room and apologized that they’d had such a hard time finding the right drug combination for me. At Kaiser, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain control, and there is zero judgement. I believe their philosophy can apply to anything in life, and I think it’s really important. Here’s what the nurse said:

We don’t ever attempt to judge people’s pain. We ask them to tell us how they feel, and then we alleviate people’s pain according to how they judge their pain. Who are we to say that one person’s pain isn’t as bad as another’s?

Everything in life, cancer and pain tolerance included, is relative to your own life experience. We all have different experiences with cancer before we get it. Having a good friend die of my same cancer profoundly impacted the way I have coped with my own. Had I not known her, this experience would have been different. Having a family history changed the way I dealt with it. So very many things affect how we handle every problem we face in our lives, and no way of handling it is better or worse than another.

So here we are, back to my original question – is my mom braver than I am because of how she handled her cancer? We’ve come to the conclusion that no, she wasn’t any more or less brave than I am.

We are all doing what we can to get through our lives, cancer included, and we’re choosing to do it in the way that feels the least traumatizing to us. For me, cutting my hair short wasn’t an act of bravery; it’s less scary to me than shaving it all off in one fell swoop, or letting it fall out in clumps. Sharing my experience with all of you isn’t an act of bravery; writing is how I cope with any experience in my life, and this (unlike my divorce) is something I feel comfortable sharing publicly.

I am starting not to believe in strength or bravery. We all do what we can, to the best of our ability. What do you think?

The gorgeous flowers in the featured photo were sent along with a yummy candle by one of Bear’s coworkers, Maddi, who I fell madly in love with last summer (shh…not sure if she knows the depth of my feelings). They allegedly came with salted caramels too, but I will DENY EVER HAVING SEEN THEM because OMG they were delicious.

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