Thursday, October 29, 2015

What I Think About Cancer Buzzwords

So, we’re ending the month of October - Breast Cancer Awareness Month - and I for one will be very glad to see pink relegated back to babies and Glinda in WICKED. I’ve never been someone who jumped on bandwagons just because they were popular. But there’s something about having cancer and having buzzwords and themes swarm me that puts my discomfort at a whole other level.

Almost as soon as I uttered the words, “I have breast cancer” my inbox, mailbox, and social media pages have been filled with all shades of pink and words like fight, warrior, brave, strong, battle, journey, etc. I understand why they’re popular - at a time when it’s so difficult to know what to say, sometimes buzzwords are all that come to mind. They come with love but are thrown with such abandon that their intention is often lost in a murky haze.

What’s happened is that these buzzwords have, in me, created a sense of isolation from the world, because when someone with so much love says, “You’ve got this, you’re the bravest person I know,” I can’t share how I really feel. That would be anti-social. Ungrateful. Mean. So I say, “Thank you - that means a lot! Happy face emoticon!” Because people want to know that I will be ok. So I make sure they know that I’ll be ok. But by not saying how I feel, I’m hiding a very real part of the experience of cancer:

Isolation. Fear. Fury. Frustration. Exhaustion. Loneliness. Confusion. Numbness.

The truth is, I don’t feel brave. You hear cancer patients say this all the time. Bravery is when you have a choice to go forward or back and no matter the fear you go forward anyway. There is no choice in fighting cancer. There is no going back. It’s only forward, no matter what. Beyond that, it’s obvious - you get cancer, you treat it. There’s no bravery in that. That’s survival - a basic human instinct.

I know that people view my openness to be brave. But that’s really just selfishness on my part, because sharing is my only connection to feeling human. I feel very lucky that you find value in it, but that doesn’t feel like the definition of bravery. Maybe self-benefitted altruism? :)

Alas, I’m not a warrior. I didn’t sign on to fight a war, and didn’t earn the distinction. I certainly feel a war going on inside of me, but I don’t own it. There is a crazy medicine being pumped into me every week and it’s everything I can do to just go about daily functions without falling over from “the wobbles” (thanks for the awesome description of that feeling, Laura.) If I had a spear in my hand, I would probably look pretty silly, so warrior has always felt disingenuous. (Note: I do know other breast cancer patients and survivors who thrive on the word WARRIOR, and that is fantastic. Don’t begrudge them their name - I just don’t feel like it fits me.)

Source: The Boston Globe

There are times that I marvel at everything my body is able to handle, and honor my body as being powerful and awesome. But it doesn’t feel like my body. I feel like I’ve been taken over by aliens, and I never know what the surprise will be from day to day. Will this be the day where the other 50% of my hair falls out (despite all of my best efforts to keep it in place with Cold Caps?) Will I have normal bathroom function today, or will I have to wait that out ANOTHER day? How many days of fatigue will I have this week? Am I really hungry or is that the steroids talking? Are those normal chills, or am I starting to get neuropathy (a dangerous side effect of Taxol, the treatment I’m on for 12 weeks)? Wait... is that ANOTHER cold? WILL I EVER HAVE A DAY WHEN I FEEL WELL AGAIN?

I don’t want to fight. I’m very competitive and already had enough fight in my life, thank you very much.

I don’t value this journey. Yes, I’m sure I will come out a better person on the other side (people have told me so,) but I attribute that to my ability to make awesome out of crap. It’s NOT because cancer is a valuable as a journey. Don’t believe me? Would you like to take my cancer and have the benefit of the journey? Didn’t think so.

One thing I avoid talking about is my anger. Man, that makes people so uncomfortable. So, I hide it and it eats me up inside. So I’m throwing caution to the wind, and I’ll share something that really makes me angry.

I was at an open mic and a comedian was joking about menopause and she said, “Wait - is anyone here still menstruating? Show of hands?” Normally I don’t raise my hand when listening to a comedian because I don’t want to be singled out, but in this case I realized that I COULDN’T raise my hand IN REALITY because I’m in early menopause from cancer. Nope, strike that. I'm in early menopause from chemo, not cancer. As in, I haven’t had my period in 2 months. I’m in my 30s. Something’s not right. No period = no fertility.

And guess what? My insurance would not approve the one drug that might help me preserve my fertility. There is a chance that my menopause will reverse when chemo is done (as can happen to women in their 30s) but there is a greater chance that the damage to my ovaries will be too great and the menopause will be permanent. The worst part? I didn’t even know I wanted kids until the day my doctor said I wouldn’t be able to have them. In that moment, I began to grieve for the choice that had been taken away from me by cancer - a choice I didn’t know I held so closely to my heart.

Ah, yes... see, anger is just a foil for what’s really going on at a deeper level. It’s GRIEF. I’m grieving for the life I’ve left behind. I’m grieving for my innocence. I’m grieving for a body that will never be the same (with 4 knife-slashed scars across my chest to prove it.) I’m grieving the time I’ve lost with my friends and family due to appointments and the need for rest. I’m grieving the time lost in my acting career as I battle huge self-esteem issues due to hair loss, facial redness, eyelash fallout and steroid-induced weight gain. Will I age out of my “type category” before I’ve put myself back together? Yep - add ANXIETY to that list, too.

Speaking of anxiety, did I mention that there is chance that this invasive cancer could kill me? A small chance with all of the nuking going on inside my body, but a chance none the less.

Moving on...

The very hardest thing to hear people ask is, “How are you?” I truly do not know how to answer that, and the few times I’ve been brave enough to say so in the moment, people have responded, “Answer however you want to answer - I just want to know that I’m thinking about you.” So, maybe it’s better just to let me know THAT rather than asking how I am. Because I can’t answer that in the short, snappy way that social interactions have time for. When I’m asked, “How are you?” all I hear is, “Please tell me you’re ok” (which I’m not) or “I want to know what’s been happening recently,” (which, jesus, where do I begin?) At any given moment I can be feeling all kinds of things, it’s enough to drive me mad. So I’ve created standard replies that keep me in people’s good graces but allow me to keep closed the gaping emotional wound, “I’m hanging in there.” “I’m taking it one day at a time.” “Cancer is surreal.” “Cancer is stupid.”

I know I have been changed in ways I cannot fathom, and I am so grateful to gaining experience as a human being. But late at night as I stare at my ceiling, I hear this echo in my head:

I just want my old life back.

I’m on a speeding train and I can’t get off until treatment is done. Life will be a blur until then. I learn new things about my body every day that scare me and awe me. I want to cry and I can’t, and then I cry at the silliest things and I can't stop crying. Most of the time I just want to be held and don’t want to talk. Or I want to hear about things happening in your life, even the mundane stuff, but everyone's too afraid to talk about themselves because they think my cancer trumps whatever they're dealing with. (It really doesn't. Whatever is happening for you *is* what matters to you, and that's what *I* care about.)

The last thing I want to say...It’s hard to get your advice and suggestions for how to make my life better. My friends want so badly to be a part of the solution, but that’s already being taken care of by the doctors, nutritionists and wellness practitioners that I’ve hired to take care of me. I just need my friends to be my friends, to make me smile, to remind me that I’m ok to be me, and to help me out with the small stuff.

There are two great articles I’d like to leave you with, which share much more eloquently than I how best to deal with someone who has cancer:

• The Spoon Theory (which is about lupus but applies here. Thank you, Emily, for sending this to me.)
• What To Do When Your Friend Has Breast Cancer

And I can't leave you without at least a little motivation (for me as much as anyone else):

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, because I actually have a humor article ready to publish here in the next week or so. See? We'll be back to our regular scheduled programming soon. In the meantime, please leave a comment to let me know you were here...

Erin  :-?

(That's an emoticon for "I don't know what the hell I'm feeling!)


Many of you have asked how you can help. I’ve created a wish list of things that would really make a difference as I go through treatment. Click here.

To read my medical updates from 2015-2016, including how I’ve been doing with chemo treatments, click here

I love comments almost as much as getting mail. Leave something below!

Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit

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