Cancer — the gift that never was

  • 6 June 2012


Some people call cancer a gift. Nancy’s Point doesn’t think so. A genuine gift touches the heart. That’s why she calls her cat Ninja a gift.

So what is a gift? The first meaning in is “Something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.” Cancer satisfies neither of these requirements: it’s not voluntary and it’s not free. It’s like calling store customers “guests,” a term I link to those who are invited to an event without any expectation of payment.

Would a Christmas ornament be considered a gift when the giver doesn’t know what else to give at that time of year? When the giver doesn’t like his or her ornament and “regifts” it to another? Now that the weather has cooled off for a few days, I’ve tunneled back into my storage unit, this time rummaging through those red and green symbols of a December holiday ripe with commercialism.

Ripe as in the commercialism associated with pink October for breast cancer awareness. Can’t we hunt for red October instead?

What do I salvage from seven big plastic containers and two rolling cabinets of Christmas accessories? The ones that someone bought for me?  The ones my children made in school? The ones my mother created in her ceramics class? The ones that would make me feel guilty if I gave them away or threw them out?

No, those are not the criteria I use.  I examine each item closely. Does it rock my boat? Is it eye candy to me? Does the bangle have special memories attached to it, memories I never want to lose? Once I put the decoration through this cosmetic and emotional ringer, I place it in the discard, thrift store, or save pile. I’m down now to three Christmas tubs plus one four-drawer cabinet on wheels. That’s more than enough.

Why would I save centerpieces or garlands just for the sake of keepsakes? If they represent a painful memory, they perhaps should be repurposed and given to someone else who might appreciate them. They can be donated to a good charity to benefit others.

If I adhered to that pattern of saving symbols of painful memories, I would be compelled to keep my compression bandages even if I were cured of lymphedema. Why would I cherish a reminder of the gift wrapping of my arm? Lymphedema itself is a daily reminder of my “gift” of cancer, complete with daily arm compression sleeves and cotton stockinettes, underwrapping, foam and short-stretch bandages. Fortunately, more fashionable alternatives exist for daily wear such as LympheDIVA sleeves. But still. Wouldn’t we rather not present with the condition at all?

I believe those who insist that cancer is indeed a gift want themselves or a loved one to feel better, to believe they are stronger and more resilient as a result.  And maybe there is some truth to that. But would I wish it on anybody or wrap it up and bring it to the neighbors as if it were homemade cookies? Avon calling?


Cancer not only destroys confidence in one’s appearance, but can ruin relationships and promises for the future. Every little ache and pain I experience reminds me that my cancer may return. My primary-care physician and oncologist take those pains seriously. That’s what really bothers me. Why don’t they just say it’s arthritis or muscle strain from overactivity, or indigestion or tannins from a glass of red wine? Why do they immediately order a scan to see what it might be? Or maybe two or three scans in case the first is not conclusive?

Denial might keep us from seeing a doctor at all. But our nagging anxiety eventually makes us succumb to some sort of test, whether it’s chest x-ray, bone scan, rib x-ray, angiogram, EKG, ECHO, MRI or CT. The alphabet soup chokes me sometimes.

The cumulative effect of three types of chemo as well as Herceptin and two types of daily pills for years has taken its toll on me. I exhibit signs and symptoms that stump the medical specialists because I’m still a guinea pig, even in the 21st century. They usually don’t see a two-time breast cancer patient living as long as I do with no evidence of disease. Because the symptoms don’t follow the usual course and resolve quickly, the physicians and medical technicians err on the side of caution and become scan-happy.

But I’m the one faced with the outrageous premiums for medical insurance that still requires deductibles and co-pays. And guess who foots the bill for anxiety pills I take as I face these scans? It seems sometimes that the medical profession doesn’t care that I pay so much out of pocket. I’ve learned from Dr. Wendy Harpham in her June 3, 2012 “On Healthy Survivorship” blog post that I can ask if the doctors have any flexibility in their recommendations. If not, I may be wise to seek a different physician, one who is willing to deal with a partially non-compliant patient.

Is cancer a gift? I don’t think so. If it is, it’s a gift that keeps on taking. Taking away a scan-free future, taking away my youth, taking away my carefree attitude about ageing, taking away my self-worth as a lover and friend.

My love language is not gifts. It’s acts of service and quality time. So the best gift for me is the gift of time:  time spent talking, catching up, doing things together and for one another. No other gift is as important to me. In the last several months I’ve discarded many gifts by donating them to thrift stores or consignment stores, or regifting them to bless another. They take up too much room–and hence, money–sitting in a storage unit, waiting for someone to appreciate them. There’s only so many that will fit under my bed.

Given the choice, I would never make room for cancer. Or, heaven forbid, regift it. Banish the thought!

Do you think cancer is a gift? What’s the best gift you’ve been given? What is your primary love language? If you don’t know, click on the above “love languages” link and find out.