Lois Hjelmstad

Lois Hjelmstad.com

Compassion and courage for the times you need it.

Last week I read an excellent post from Marie Ennis O'Connor on "Is There a Hierarchy Among Cancer Survivors?"

Then this week that discussion was followed by another excellent post and discusssion at Regrounding. Even though the topic has been quite thoroughly and thoughtfully covered in these previous posts, I'd like to add a bit.  

So, is there a herarchy among cancer survivors? Is there one in breast cancer circles?

Having spoken hundreds of times to quite diverse cancer support groups, as well as to oncologists, nurses, and others in the cancer community, I have experienced many layers of:

  • You didn't have chemo, so what gives you the right?
  • Your lymph nodes were not positive, so you're home free.
  • You're lucky it was only breast cancer.
  • You aren't Stage IV. Everything else is a piece of cake.
  • You didn't suffer as much with your treatment; you didn't have chemo before Zofran: you didn't burn and peel with your radiation.  
  • You can't call yourself a victim; that shows you are weak.
  • You can't use battle words; or, you must use battle language.
  • Your chronic fatigue syndrome didn't totally put you in bed for years. (Forgive my straying into another disease. But I've heard this a lot.)
  • You must identify as "survivor," "thrivor." "victor," "totally made it." (Forget about the part that breast cancer can recur years later.)
  • We must be brave, courageous – keep our friends, family, casual passers-by reassured.


I've also lived quite a long time. Guess that puts me pushing toward the top of the hierarchy of "I'm older than you and I know better." But maybe I won't play that card, even though with all of this well-earned gray hair and many wrinkles, it is terribly tempting. 🙂 

Let me repeat some of what I commented on Marie's blog (with amplification):

There is always hierarchy. Everywhere. In every circle – family, sports, health, illness, religion, politics, young, old, male, female.

I don’t know if it is more prevalent among women than men; it may seem so in junior high, but it probably just exists in different arenas.

There is something within us that seems to compel us to play one-upmanship. In disease circles, maybe it is self-preservation. If I can figure out what stupid thing you did to make yourself sick or caused yourself to die, I can avoid that and save myself indefinitely.

I try to guard myself against participating in hierarchical maneuvers, but certainly don’t always succeed. I have deservedly been put in my place a number of times.

When I am the recipient, my hope is always that I can find the grace to give the other person the benefit of the doubt – realizing that there is no way I can walk in her shoes or divine her motives or identify her. I simply do not know why he or she has chosen that path or why he or she needs to de-elevate me. 

On the other hand, no one can put me down if I won’t go down.

6 Responses

  1. Great topic — cancer hierarchy is something we all deal with on some level at some time.

    What I hear most: “So-and-so has such a great attitude!” or “So-and-so has revamped her entire diet and is just glowing!” (And no they were not talking about me.) Or “at least you got the ‘good’ cancer” and you don’t need as much support, you didn’t have chemo.” Always, from people who did not have cancer. OY.

    It is definitely a way that people use to distance themselves from cancer, to try and find a reason for me to have it and for them not to get it. Were it only that simple. I also think folks have no idea how cutting these kind of remarks are. I tend to just shut my mouth these days and change the subject. It used to make me cry. Now I just don’t engage and move on.

  2. I think you are wise – simply don’t engage and move on. I’ve learned that the comments people make to me say more about them than about me.

    People do the same thing with death – He should have worn his seatbelt. He didn’t watch his diet. He smoked. She was too fat. Why did they leave their house anyway?

    And, of course, I would NEVER do anything of those things, so obviously I’m going to live forever.

    Ourselves and our fellow humans are awfully interesting!

  3. I’m glad you expanded on this theme, Lois. Everything you wrote rings true for me. That’s why support groups aren’t always successful; there’s the jealousy thing, the denial, the blame, the shame. I’m with Renn; I shut my mouth and change the subject when hurtful remarks get hurled my way. You are right: we human beings are awfully interesting–and complex. xox

  4. Hi Lois,

    You are so right: there is hierarchy in everything. The blame game unfortunately exists in every facet of life. I love your line: “…no one can put me down if I won’t go down.” That’s exactly how I feel, and this resonates with me. I just posted on a support group that went awry because of people being petty and self-consumed.

    1. There is definitely a hierarchy in grief. Here again I notice the media being more upset about young death than old death. And, to a certain extent, that is true – at least us old people have had our lives.

      At the moment I’m trying to think of an arena in which there is no hierarchy. Can any of you think of one?

      And I agree, Nancy, if we could just keep from judging…

      Beth’s post on the petty support group is excellent.

      Thank you all so much for posting – many of my new friends weighed in and I so appreciate it.

  5. Lois,
    I’ve noticed there is a hierarchy of sorts regarding grief as well. Have you?

    The real danger is when judgment accompanies this kind of thing. Thanks for taking this conversation a step further.

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