I have to tell you, every twist and turn of this cancer experience always reveals something new. There is the physical stuff: physiology, biology, and chemistry. There is the psychological stuff: fear, resolve, sadness. happiness, and uncertainty. And then there are the intangibles. You could argue these are part of the psychological, but I disagree. By intangibles I mean support and empathy, both real and virtual.
Over the last three weeks or so I’ve had the distinct displeasure of witnessing individuals who, on discussion boards, rage and lash out at other people with insulting, judgmental, and patronizing comments. Online rudeness doesn’t surprise me at all. Indeed, it’s pretty standard in the virtual world. When I first used email for a class in college, I was shocked when a classmate of mine, in addressing a woman with whom he disagreed, wrote “See ya! Wouldn’t want to be ya!” He was reprimanded (good) and didn’t do it again (even better). But voicing comments in an online environment–where you don’t have to face anyone head on–is rather easy to do. You can delete their comments if you don’t like it or even block the person if you don’t want to hear them anymore. Something you can’t do in real life.
Now, when this happens within a general group where people don’t necessarily have anything in common I can almost see it and I don’t even blink. This happens on Facebook quite often. A friend will post a comment, their friend disagrees–you have no idea who this person is–and then you post a comment. Before you know it the two of you go back and forth throwing shit at one another like monkeys tossing shit at patrons in the zoo. It’s entertaining (for me), but there’s no basis of commonality between those two or three people to enforce a sense of decorum.
Recently I checked into the Inspire discussion boards. Inspire is a pretty good site, with discussion boards for any number of topics. I chose to check in to the Advanced Breast Cancer Support Community. Every now and then I check in to see if there is something posted from which I can learn. I often see a link to an article in a publication or a blog, a link to some side effects or a new study that piques my interest. There are a lot of smart people on there from all over the globe and I like reading their discussions. I don’t get personally invested in the conversations only because I don’t check them all that often; and up until recently I just haven’t had that much time.
After posting my essays Prognosis and Just, I saw a topic that intrigued me: Why Can’t We Just be Bloody Angry? This person noted “It’s f****g cancer we’ve got. It’s a mess, it hurts and it is very difficult to deal with. I’m not against trying to cheer each other up and I’m not sad. But some of the stuff on here is very sweet and cuddly and avoids the horrors too. The thread on practical shared symptoms and solutions are great, especially if you are new to various symptoms and treatments, so more of that please.”
There were some responses that were certainly caring and kind (probably the majority, really), but there were people who responded–women with stage iv breast cancer–and lashed out on this person in a way that jarred me. One after another responders were scolding the person for being angry.
- “We don’t need to stay angry.”
- “. . . you have to get past your anger the same way that the rest of us here have”
- “Have your pity party once in a while and a good cry in the shower and move on. No one wants to be around you when you’re feeling sorry for yourself so get over it . . . you have what is known as optical rectitus , which means you just happen to have a sh—y outlook on life-and if that is the case you have my sympathy.”
- “Of course there is anger. I have been very angry but anger solves nothing and is such a waste of time and energy. Do you feel better for your rant? Does anyone feel better for having read it?”
I wrote and wondered where the empathy was among some of these folks? If someone is angry we know better than anyone how they feel–where was the support, a hand to hold, or someone to just say “I understand.” Oh sure, there were people who responded that way. And I’m not implying that people who didn’t are “bad.” But the exchange reminded me of the reaction Barbara Ehrenreich had in her article “Welcome To Cancerland.” She posted a message to a Komen message board with the subject “angry” and mentioned some of the debilitating treatments, the “sappy pink ribbons,” and her anger. She received some support, but some of the responses she received were not unlike the messages of board that I had just read.
- “I really dislike saying you have a bad attitude towards all of this, but you do, and it’s not going to help you in the least.”
- “Cancer is a rotten thing to have happen and there are no answers for any of us as to why. But to live your life, whether you have one more year or 51, in anger and bitterness is such a waste . . .”
- “You need to run, not walk, to some counseling . . . Please, get yourself some help and I ask everyone on this site to pray for you so you can enjoy life to the fullest.”
There were people who were subsequently angry at me and told me to get lost and tried to rip me a new one for my judgmental statements–good luck with that, I don’t much care. But, frankly, the atmosphere was toxic; one person, acknowledging such, wrote to say how upset she was that she was being insulted just because she was angry at cancer. After I ducked out the moderators finally got involved and tried to instill some calm. Good luck. People were still prattling about anger and how it’s not good for you.
Anger is a human emotion. It is something that can be healthy to express and explore. In my own situation anger waxes and wanes. Often it is mixed with fear or confusion. Sometimes just sadness or it appears depending on how much pain I might feel on a particular day. Has it taken over my life? Hardly. Is my anger merely proof that I have a less than cheery outlook on life? Um, no. It is a sign that I am dealing with a less than ideal prognosis in a healthy way? Yes. I would argue definitively, yes.
“But in the seamless world of breast-cancer culture, where one website links to another,” writes Ehrenreich. “From personal narratives and grassroots endeavors to the glitzy level of corporate sponsors and celebrity spokespeople, cheerfulness is more or less mandatory, dissent a kind of treason.” A kind of treason? Yes. I would also argue that it is fear.
When you lash out at complete strangers with a level of energy one usually reserves for the most heinous of infractions, the very anger you rage against is the fear you have of your own. The conclusions you jump to belong to no one but yourself and often have nothing to do with the intent or substance of the comment to which you rage against.
The discussion groups to which I belong are safe zones. When people rage and express their anger, always the responses are kind and nurturing. I’ve never once seen anyone lecture or judge someone who expressed any opinion or fear. In my blog I lash out, curse, explode, laugh, and wonder–but it’s my forum. I express my opinions, call green blue, and tell cancer to fuck off. People are free to read, or not. And if someone writes to me telling me to fuck off (which they haven’t) there’s a link on WordPress you click called “Delete Permanently” that works really well for that kind of puerile nonsense.
When someone has cancer–regardless of the stage, of when they had it, if they still have it, or if they live in fear of getting it–we are obligated to feel empathy. We–the people with breast cancer–are to reach out and help them, not to step across the line and scold them. Not to lecture them on how to live their lives or focus their outlooks. That is up to them. Helping them to get wherever it is they want to go? That is our job.