#Our Story is a new feature where Tribe members share reflections on their cancer diagnosis. Our first installment is by Erin Cummings.
The Fallacy of Strength
“You’re so strong, you’ll beat this.”
“Cancer doesn’t know who it’s messing with.”
“If I know anyone who is strong enough to kick cancer’s ass, it’s you.”
Even before I became a cancer patient, I was a Cancer by way of my horoscope. If you believe in these things (and I do), this gives me a seemingly impenetrable shell. To the outside world, I seem powerful, fierce, and unscathed. However, like a crab, I am completely mushy on the inside. I have often thought of this as my secret gift; underneath the tough exterior was a beautiful well of empathy for others..
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was constantly told how strong I was and that I was going to beat it. It was an endless barrage of support by way of cheerleading. They had good intentions, don’t get me wrong. In fact, before I got cancer, I may have read lines from similar scripts. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to say: You’re so strong. You will beat this. At least, that’s what we want to be true when someone we love is diagnosed with an illness over which we don’t really have any control.
However, being on the receiving end, this is what I heard: When people said, “you’ve got this,” I heard, “this should be easy for you.” When people said, “you’re so strong,” I heard, “please don’t complain.” When people said, “you’re going to kick cancer’s ass,” I heard, “I don’t really know how to be here for you right now, so I’m just going to say what I think I’m supposed to say in this situation.”
The truth is that strength doesn’t mean a damn thing when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. In some ways, I felt like the passive participant, being advised by others, by experts—like, by doctors who looked at black and white images of spots and lines and somehow knew that what they were looking at was X instead of Y and then decided which new therapy would drip from my IV bag. Or by the surgeon who meticulously sliced me open, scooped me like an avocado and zipped me back up again. Or the radiology oncologist and her team of laser wizards who radiated my body ad nauseum.
When people offered to pray for my strength, I wanted to say to them, “Don’t pray for me. Pray for my doctors, that they make the right decisions for my care. Pray that my health insurance stays intact. Pray that I figure out how to do my disability paperwork because the parking at the hospital is absurdly expensive and the chemo ward doesn’t validate.”
However, the biggest problem that I had with people celebrating my perceived strength was that I felt like in moments I needed to most, I wasn’t allowed to be weak. My breakdowns and my vulnerability were hidden behind closed doors. My fears and my anguish and my rage were vomited on the few people I allowed in. And they were forced to bear the brunt of it because I didn’t feel like I could share that ugly, pathetic, soft side with everyone. I wanted to say, “I’m a hack. I’m weak. I’m not strong. I’m a fucking mess and I don’t want to do this and I can’t do this and I just want to buy a one-way ticket to Mexico and lay on the beach drinking cocktails until whatever this awful disease wants to do to my body just does it already and I don’t even care if I die at this point.”
And it was in those moments that I started to realize my true strength. It took me actually pushing through and making the decision every three weeks to go back and get the infusion, knowing what I would go through, but not knowing if it would be worse this time. As my estrogen levels plummeted and my hormones became as predictable as Pop Rocks, my mind went to places that I had never imagined. I went really dark. I read a story of a woman in her 90s who was diagnosed with cancer and decided against treatment and lived her life until she died. I don’t think I’ve ever been more jealous of anyone in my life. But I chose to live. I chose to live in discomfort and sometimes agony. I chose to let my body get shot up with poison. I chose to cut off beloved parts of my body. There was my strength. Maybe that’s what people had been talking about all along when they mentioned my strength, but I felt like I was discovering it for the first time.
When we are diagnosed, we have a rare opportunity that most people don’t get until late in life. When it’s time for people to die, a lot of times, it just happens – a heart attack, a car accident, a tragedy, or they just get to that age where death is an inevitability. When we, as young people who are diagnosed with cancer, are asked to begin treatment, we are actually being faced with the decision of continuing or ending our own lives. Unless we are legal minors, no one will put a gun to our heads and force us to accept treatment. We could say no. We could just say, “I’m not really where I want to be in life and I think I’m just going to check out.”
Yet, we press on. We move, sometimes just shuffling one foot in front of the other, in a bit of a haze, because if we stop for too long, we may not get going again. That is where we need strength. But it is important to note, that kind of strength doesn’t mean: Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Or, Cancer picked the wrong girl. Even as I participated in my cancer treatment, day in and day out, there was always an element of “cross my fingers, hope this works.” Because I might be strong, and I might make strong decisions, but cancer doesn’t kill someone else who is making those same decisions because they are “weak.”
At this point, many of us have known women and men and even children who were stronger than we could ever pray to be, yet died of cancer anyway. There is no shame in dying of cancer. It has nothing to do with strength. The strength lies in the ability to be treated for cancer. It takes strength to put your life and your dreams and your petty little life dramas on hold so that you can be sick for a year in hopes of getting better.
I’m now learning that, in my first stages of survivorhood, I need a new kind of strength – the kind of strength that forces me to go about my day without being sucked into a vortex of fear that the cancer will come back. However, at this point, I know I’m strong enough to do that. I know that, having been faced with my own mortality and choosing to step forward, I made a choice to live life on my terms. Each and every day, I have to remind myself that I’m strong. I have to remind myself that I chose to stay here. I have to remind myself that, with that choice, comes the responsibility of making my life what I want it to be.
Now, when people tell me how strong I am, I simply say, “Thank you. I am stronger today because of it.”
Erin Cummings is an actress, activist, Founder of the non-profit Mittens for Detroit, and she currently sits on the Advisory Board of Cancer Free Generation, a division of Tower Cancer Research Foundation. She was diagnosed with Stage 2, HER2+ Breast Cancer two months after her wedding in 2016. She credits her superhero husband, her Breasties, and the word FUCK for getting her through her first year of marriage and cancer treatment at the same time.