Cancer Perspectives

Years back, I had a student I will call Paul. Paul greeted me cheerfully every morning and most days made me smile easily. He was a chatterbox, an average student, and enjoyed being at school. He was there for the social aspects and needed redirection to work independently, but he’d always tell me learning was very important. He struck me as a happy child because he could find the bright side in just about anything.

At some point during that school year, Paul lost his enthusiasm. School wasn’t where he wanted to be. He was unusually quiet and wouldn’t open up. There had been a few more behavior issues surfacing. It was a puzzle until the morning I logged on to my school email and found an angry email from his mother letting me know Paul had been hit in the face during class. She included the principal in the email as well, citing concerns her son was being bullied at school both in class and on the playground.

Had Paul been hit in the face in class? Sadly, yes. I was there when it happened and already had it processed and worked through with both boys. Enter a boy I’ll call Ali. Ali had poor impulse control, and like Paul, could be easily distracted. Now, it doesn’t take long for mutual distractors to connect with one another in whatever ways they will. What was interesting in this situation was that Paul had positioned himself right behind Ali during a cooperative class activity. He was holding one of Ali’s arms behind his back and wouldn’t let go. Paul also left that part out of his story when he reported the story to his mother.

So, Ali slugged him.

Paul let go.

Every player had a different perspective of these events. Paul’s mom was seeing a pattern that worried her and she was advocating for her son. She knew if she threw the word bullied into the conversation that it would have considerable traction. It always does whether it is an accurate description of events or not. I wonder what she would have thought if I suggested Paul actually had bullied Ali because of repetitive issues between the boys. I didn’t ask. No need to stir that pot.

The principal had more of a three-tiered perspective: support for the child, positive communication with the parent, and supporting how I responded to what happened in the classroom. He knew of the other incidents that involved playground events and some reoccurring students.

Ali’s perspective was reactive. He often didn’t think before he did something. I imagine he was thinking something along the lines of, “Why is Paul grabbing me? It’s my turn in the game. Let go!” Pow. Problem solved.

Paul had a couple points of view. He knew what would get a response from home, and he genuinely was not feeling accepted by peers. He wanted friendships, but ironically had unsuccessful interactions which achieved the exact opposite of what he intended. He felt picked on. I never really learned what happened on the playground, but I’m sure it factored into his feelings. In his mind, all these things together made him feel bullied.

My teacher perspective was one where I was just baffled by Paul’s motivation to grab Ali’s arm like he did in the first place. I was equally baffled with Ali. Who just hauls off and hits someone? I guess someone who feels like they are being restrained for no reason.

Reality is often intangible. Each of us has our own reality as we perceive it, each through our own lens. The same event affects people differently.

The same is true with cancer. Cancer affects people differently. There is no right. Each person perceives cancer from their own viewpoint. Those who are back to whatever normal is after an early stage cancer diagnosis and treatment see cancer very differently from those with metastatic cancer. Some with metastatic cancer call themselves survivors, thrivers, metsers, cancer havers, lifers, or warriors. It comes down to the individual. Caregivers, family, oncologists, and nurses all offer their own unique perspectives. Media in my opinion gets it wrong more than they get it right because their goals for a story don’t often match mine. Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the repetitive emphasis on pink and awareness rather than research and action is a perfect example.

How others with Stage IV cancer view those of us who have survived longer than the 2-3 year median is another area of differing perspectives. I read something recently where someone felt that those who shared longer survival times were being cruel to those who weren’t likely to experience more years. I’ll hit nine years in a few months. I see those who share longer survival as symbols of hope. I look to those who have 11, 15, and over 20 years living with metastatic disease.

It’s all a crapshoot. It all sucks. I recognize it may be difficult to read news when you may not be doing well. Sometimes it’s rough to read news of stable scans or NEAD when mine are not. It can be hard for me to share news when things are going well because I know others don’t have those results. I usually don’t share much news publicly. And yet, I don’t see sharing such news as being cruel. Good news is always good news.

One viewpoint I have a tough time accepting is the natural or alternative approaches to treating cancer. Modern medicine is always going to be my frontline plan. I do believe in complementary therapies to support my health. There was someone early on in my diagnosis who reminded me more than once that I chose the chemo route to treat cancer. Did she think I didn’t know? What exactly was her point? I was well aware that I chose science over crazy. I may eat my kale and turmeric, but I’m of the opinion I need treatments with more medical substance. I’m here because of them.

There are those with cancer who may want to talk about how things are going and medical results in great detail. Some people are an open book. A patient (total stranger) in the treatment waiting area once told me all about his medical treatment plan and then proceeded to stand up and almost take off his t-shirt to show me his burns from radiation. I hadn’t asked, couldn’t stop him, and got myself an eyeful of awful. He was all about sharing. To each their own.

Over the years of living with metastatic breast cancer, it has been especially challenging not to let negative comments from family members and well-meaning friends fester away and gnaw at me. Some people at times are just awkward with me. How could the same person ask repeatedly if I missed teaching? Maybe it was dementia or just awkwardness on their part. My “prognosis” used to be brought up often by another. A friend or two has become distant. Look, I’m living and out in the world accomplishing things I wouldn’t be if I were working full time. It strikes me as really uncaring that others try to stick me in a place they think I am or remind me of what a textbook has to say about me. Occasionally, someone “reminds” me that I have cancer. I’m not going to forget. It’s with me every day.

The Blind Men and the Elephant is an Indian fable about six blind men who encountered an elephant but did not know what an elephant was. They saw it by feeling it with their hands. Each felt a different part of it. One thought the elephant was like a pillar by feeling its strong leg. Another disagreed and thought the elephant was like a rope because he had touched its tail. The third, who had touched the elephant’s trunk, insisted an elephant was more like a thick branch of a tree. The man who had felt the elephant’s ear thought an elephant was like a big hand fan. The fifth blind man thought an elephant was like a big wall from touching its belly, and the last, who had touched the elephant’s tusk, said an elephant was like a solid pipe. All of the men insisted he was right and they loudly argued.

Along came the king who didn’t like all the noise. He told the blind men they all had different experiences but were all right. After the men understood the true nature of an elephant, the arguments ended, and the elephant transported the men away.

We are so like the blind men when we let only our experiences form our perspectives. And of course, how could it be any other way? What is important to keep in mind with the parable and with life is that people approach situations from different perspectives based on different versions of reality. Cancer is a pretty big whopping elephant and gets perceived in countless ways.

I may not agree with how everyone chooses to share or specific ideas about cancer. I know not everyone agrees with all of my thoughts. That’s okay. I believe we still can support one another and can learn from each other. There is room for all of us at the table to share our experiences.

And I won’t slug anyone if we disagree.