Saturday, 13 April 2019

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Is there always someone worse off?

“No matter what you’re going through there is always someone who has got it worse.”

How many of us have compared our own experience of cancer with others who we see as having “suffered” more than us?   

The starting point for our weekly discussion was to look at why we compare our own suffering - usually unfavourably - with someone else’s and whether and how this strategy supports our resilience. 

We quickly found ourselves wondering whether there is an unspoken hierarchy of suffering in the experience of cancer? Are some cancers seen as “better” or “luckier” than others? For example, those of us who had not had chemotherapy felt as though we were not seen as having had a “real” cancer. Or, some of us who “only” had a lumpectomy shared that we did not feel entitled to grieve or mourn because we had not had a mastectomy. 

Worryingly, some of us reported also having had witnessed this kind of response first hand at support groups.

Many of us shared that we had heard clich├ęs like - “if you are going to get cancer, breast cancer is one of the best”, or, “you’re one of the lucky ones”, or, “you can live without your breasts, they are ‘outside’ your body”; or “Don’t be sad, you’re alive after all, that’s all that matters.”

Why, we wondered, do we down play our emotions? 
Why do we compare cancers? Why do we minimise our emotions as a way of coping? 

The obvious answer is that by desensitising ourselves, we attempt to avoid the pain that we feel, and by minimising what are often deeply upsetting experiences or responses, we feel we can cope better. The treatment is “doable”, we say. We feel so grateful, we say.  

Naz told us that while our responses are understandable, our emotions are important signals in communicating what matters to us. Minimising others’ emotions and problems can be linked with a tendency to ignore our own emotions and feelings - a tendency to avoid and deny. To turn a blind eye. Avoid the reality. 

It is natural then, to hide our feelings, to pretend to be fine, to wear the happy smile, so as to appear “strong”. But this avoidance can backfire, our emotions are our “truth” and they become louder and louder. Playing them down poses risks to our psychological well-being and resilience in the longer term. We end up having to use valuable reserves of energy to manage our critical inner voices which so often berate us for not measuring up. 

Often all we really want is an acknowledgment, an acceptance, embracing how we feel. Naz reminded us that to be able to embrace our fears as well as others’ fears and not hide, is strength, not the other way round. 

Worryingly, dominant narratives about cancer (sometimes perpetuated by the media, and even unwittingly by charities) can reinforce this tendency in ourselves.The result is that along with our cancer diagnosis, we are assigned a role to play, the “brave” cancer patient, the “plucky” survivor who has “beaten” all the odds. These narratives can become invisible prisons which silence us and isolate us, undermining our psychological well-being and our resilience.

Our discussion reminded us that acknowledging others suffering can help us recognise our own pain, that if we are brave enough to stop down-playing our emotions and responses, we can also find self-acceptance; that what really matters after the trauma of a cancer diagnosis is that we learn to respect our experiences and emotions, and, that we support one another to find an appreciation and respect for ourselves. 

Here at BRiC, we hold each other’s experiences and individual responses with respect, irrespective of whether we have been diagnosed with primary or secondary breast cancer. We share our problems - we are all in this boat together. 

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please send us a private message via Facebook. 

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