Warning: angry post ahead.
For the past month, I’ve been having a rather genial conversation via email with someone about food, history, and (more specifically) the history of food. In this blog’s previous incarnation I discussed the issues surrounding too many interests. I’ve always been interested in anthropology, particularly as it relates to food.
It was nice, then, to find someone who has actually studied these things, works in the anthropology field, and is willing to strike up conversations with total strangers after reading something they’ve written somewhere.
As regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, yours truly was diagnosed with, treated for, and survived cancer. At times when I am conversing with someone it does come up that I cannot eat and have not eaten real food for more than half a year. Sometimes – and disappointingly – after they hear the details of what has transpired, people vanish, as if it’s been revealed that I’m a biohazard or that they believe what I had was (or is) communicable in some way. I expect I’ll need to get used to this. Sometimes, people just acknowledge it, give their sympathies or not, and we move on. This is best.
And then, there are the wackos. To this point, I’ve only had two people react so strangely that I’ve had to cut off communication with them. Today, though, I received the following email from the woman with whom I’ve been talking food and anthropology.
“That’s awesome. You’re so lucky to have endured something like that, because now you know what suffering can be and now your life can’t be any worse. Did you seek out any alternative treatments before turning to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy? Both of those can be life-threatening and personally, I think I would have started with a homeopath and only gone through those things if the homeopathic remedies didn’t work. You’re also lucky that what you had done won’t show as much as someone with something like breast cancer who has had one or both removed, or someone who has had to have a limb amputated, etc. Your life will be as normal as it was before.”
At first, I just read this through and didn’t really think very much about it, fully intending to return to our discussion about fish.
When I read it a second time, though, I became angry. When I read it a third time, I became furious. Let’s take this line by line.
In the sense that this sort of thing can inspire awe in the way it can be treated or what it looks like on scans or what research breakthroughs have come about, yes. In the sense that it’s a good thing, absolutely not.
“You’re so lucky to have endured something like that, because now you know what suffering can be and now your life can’t be any worse.”
This may have been the line that infuriated me the most. It is not “lucky” to endure some life-threatening illness or situation. Not for me or anyone else. I didn’t need this to know what suffering can be – when I was young, we were dirt poor. Not just poor and looking to make things stretch, but poor where we ate beans and rice for days on end and rarely had meat. Poor where clothes were kept as long as possible and passed between kids because there simply was no money for new clothes for kids growing like kids do, where we had some piece of shit car that always looked like it was on the verge of disintegrating but got us from place to place anyway. Poor where my mother became an expert at juggling money to pay bills and learned just how long a particular company would wait before they actually cut off your phone or lights. We didn’t have cable, we didn’t have fancy things, we didn’t eat a lot of food that wasn’t the cheapest that could be bought. That kind of poor. That kind of suffering, especially as it relates to the possibility of going hungry, leaves a distinct impression on you as a kid. Beyond that, losing people – watching cancer eat away at my grandmother, and then having her die from it, for instance – brings suffering to those around the person actually affected. So I didn’t really need a bout of cancer of my own to understand anything about the subject.
“Did you seek out any alternative treatments before turning to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy?”
Such as? The latest herbal regimen that someone claims can cure cancer, but which they cannot show has any effect whatsoever? Something else?
“Both of those can be life-threatening and personally, I think I would have started with a homeopath and only gone through those things if the homeopathic remedies didn’t work.”
Yes, they are both forms of poisoning your body. In the hands of competent medical people, they are life-enhacing. Had I waited and gone through one or more homeopathic routes, I’d probably be dead. Oral cancer, especially in those with none of the risk factors, like myself, tends to be quite aggressive – anecdotally, we can see this from the fact that my own had progressed into my lymph nodes only a couple of months after I had discovered the spot on my tongue. Given any longer, and based on the comments from my doctors, I was fortunate to have discovered it and received treatment for it so early because it surely would have been much, much worse, and possibly untreatable.
“You’re also lucky that what you had done won’t show as much as someone with something like breast cancer who has had one or both removed, or someone who has had to have a limb amputated, etc.”
What won’t show? The scar that runs from my ear to my collarbone? Or the scar that bisects that one and runs to under my chin? The limited motion I have in my left shoulder that won’t allow me to raise my arm higher than shoulder height when I stick it straight out? The rather lopsided and sunken look to the left side of my neck due to the surgery? Or maybe the speech and swallowing issues? Lucky, all right.
“Your life will be as normal as it was before.”
Except for that whole missing tongue and base muscle thing which is making it incredibly difficult to get back to eating or speaking, or the contraction of the jaw muscles that makes it impossible for me to open my mouth wider than just under two fingers, or the issues I’m going to have eating certain types of (dry) food, since even with the amifostene shots, I can tell that my saliva levels aren’t what they were before.
Maybe I’m overreacting to the mail. Maybe I’m just being too sensitive. Maybe it was meant in a spirit other than the one in was taken. Feel free to tell me.
Or maybe some people should choose their words more carefully when they don’t really know anything about the other person beyond the words they’ve exchanged thus far. Words matter. The things we say to one another mean things and deserve at least as much consideration as what is on the menu for lunch or which shirt we will be wearing today.