Monday, August 31, 2015

Quiet Dignity and Grace

Cancer is not a dignified disease.  You would think that something so insidious, so terrible would allow a person a modicum of dignity, or at least an approximation of  it.  It's the least that cancer can do, you might think, to allow a person to suffer the pain, the misery, and the possible impending death with the sort of grace that they show in the movies.

You would be wrong.

In the movies, the person with cancer looks perfectly normal up until they're about to die, and then they are in a hospital bed, maybe bald, maybe not.  Maybe their skin is pale, maybe the makeup man has made the actor's eyes and cheeks look sunken.  But the actor is able to speak in a normal voice, remembers the names of everyone around them, and says goodbye with a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare.  Dignified. In real life, a cancer patient who has been through chemo and radiation and surgery looks emaciated, as if the disease has sucked them dry.  They may be too weak to speak, and may forget where they are or even who they are.  That is what cancer can do, and it is undignified.

Having cancer means that a lot of strangers will see you naked.  You will be asked to strip, time and time again, for examinations, for mammograms, for PET scans, for surgeries. Naked isn't a dignified state, no matter who you are, but a cancer patient has little choice.  I used to be shy about my body. Not anymore. More people have seen me naked in the last year than in my entire life. I've stopped caring about my stretchmarks, my belly fat, or the scars on the left side of my chest.  I don't even think about it anymore, it's happened so often. Maybe a few years in the future, I'll probably just start taking my clothes off one day just because the person next to me said something that triggered the muscle memory.

And you can't really hide cancer from the world, not for very long.   I know that quite a few private people who don't want anyone to know that they have cancer.  I was one of them.  I wanted to suffer in silence, just like I have done most of my life.  I was used to fighting my way through pain and whatever else life threw at me.  That way I could keep my dignity, I used to think.  Cancer doesn't allow you that option.  You're more tired than usual, when you have cancer, and you no longer have the energy or the enthusiasm you used to. It gets difficult to hide that something is going on when you suddenly start refusing all invitations or calling in sick.  And you lose your hair, for gosh sakes! ALL of it.  Eyebrows, eyelashes, etc. Even if you wear a wig, it's obvious to most people who see you every day that something is up. And most people want to help, if they care about you. 

It's not undignified to allow people to help, I've found.  It's not undignified to hold someone's hand when you go to the oncologist.  It's not undignified to have someone drive you to chemotherapy and it's not undignified to need someone to help you out of bed after chemo when you're too weak to do it yourself. Reaching out to others, asking for help, connecting to the world through the hands of others--there is strength in that.  There is grace in that.  And there is dignity in that, even if real life isn't like it is in the movies. 


  1. Movies versus reality bite. I remember a drug addicted mother with five children who were eventually adopted by a character played by Sally Struthers. At the time, I thought I wish I had a body like that. Then the realization hit that a drug addict with five children would never look that good.
    I'm glad you are able to make some peace from this experience. I am sorry anyone has to go through it, especially you.

  2. I just wish naked was a dignified state ...

  3. And this is why you need to write a real movie!

  4. What a beautiful and touching post.

  5. You've shown us that dignity is a state of mind, not a physical achievement. And I've never yet seen a movie with that 'gracious, dignified' ending that didn't make me want to throw up.


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