Cancer Doesn’t Make Me Nice

Having metastatic breast cancer doesn’t make me constantly nice. I wish it did.

In the first few weeks after my diagnosis I was overwhelmed at the support I received from people – in real life and on social media. Despite all that kindness, there was a great deal of anger and jealousy inside me. I would see other moms at school events and feel so resentful that they were going to be around for years with their kids while I wasn’t. I would read social media posts where people complained about trivial issues and become irate. As I adjusted to my diagnosis and settled into the treatment plan, those emotions subsided enough for me to control them. I remind myself that I used to complain about things that don’t matter to me at all anymore. I remind myself that it isn’t another mom’s fault that she will be able to parent her kids for years when I won’t.

As more months passed I found myself resentful of anything non-essential that took up precious time. It made me impatient and unkind when people or circumstances wasted my time. Didn’t everyone understand that I need to make the most of each day? Around that time I read about a concept called the, “Ring Theory.” It was shared a lot on social media for a time. I discussed it with a social worker at my cancer center. It was developed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman and you can research it to learn more. For me, it meant that I was in a circle by myself. Then I drew a larger ring around that and included my husband and children in it. The next ring included my mom. I kept drawing larger circles. The rings helped me prioritize people and my time. When talking to someone in a ring smaller than yours, the goal is to help. If you need to scream or cry or complain, do it to someone in a ring larger than yours. Visualizing that diagram helped me say “no” to things that involved people that were farther out. It helped me see that it was okay to stop people from giving unsolicited advice, because that is not helpful. I learned to avoid people who sucked energy from me. Prioritizing my immediate family does not always seem nice to other people, but it is the only way for me to navigate this disease and keep my sanity.

The fact that I still work full time means that I am not able to spend as much time as I would like with my husband, my three children, my mom, and my closest friends. My job as the controller of a small company means I am a one-person accounting, IT, and HR department. My position requires more than forty hours a week. My diagnosis has not changed that. By the time that I am done working for the day, I am usually too tired to do anything else except take a hot shower and settle on the couch or in bed. This makes me even more adamant about prioritizing my time. My goal is to always make time for my “inner circle.” Anything beyond that is optional. (I do know that working full time keeps my salary and health insurance, which also helps care for my inner circle.)

COVID-19 changed my personality. For starters, my oncologist put me on home isolation. She kept me informed of the latest scientific knowledge about the virus, which kept changing as more research was done. I was horrified at the amount of misinformation my social media friends were sharing about the virus. Then I was shocked when people who claimed they were praying for me and supporting me also vowed they would never wear a mask. Next came the social media friends who posted that only compromised people would be killed by the virus, as if I was a disposable part of society. I tried arguing, but eventually starting deleting people from my social media life. I wanted to scroll through social media to see photos of puppies and kittens, inappropriate humor, people bragging about their kids, great recipes, and anything that was encouraging and uplifting. I am a member of several FB groups for people with metastatic breast cancer and these people are my lifeline. I follow several religious organizations and devotions that are on social media. I did not want to scroll through so many things that caused me stress to find the things on social media that are helpful to me.

I firmly believe it is possible to be friends with someone in real life and not friends with them on social media. Maybe this comes from my age. I can remember life before the internet. The internet makes us brave in sharing opinions that we would not normally offer in person to people. The internet and the concept of “polite conversation” do not gel. Unfortunately when I started deleting people from my social media to help my mental and emotional well-being, it hurt people. While I regret that, I remind myself that I need to take care of myself so that I am strong enough to battle this cancer as long as I can.

The events of 2020 and 2021 have changed my personality. As I write this today, over half a million people in this county have perished from COVID-19. Racial injustice abounds. There was an attempted insurrection in January. White Christian nationalists make me hesitant to acclaim my Christianity without an asterisk. (No, really, I’m the kind that really believes we should love our neighbors and that God is not American.) Instead of scrolling on by when social media friends supported things I find appalling, I decided to delete them. I wish I was strong enough to keep scrolling by, to respectfully disagree. I used to be. But that is a quality terminal cancer has taken away. It is hard to explain. I guess I don’t have time to argue with anyone. The problem with this at the moment is that I do not have the chance to see people “in real life” due to the pandemic. So when I deleted people from my social media life, they also disappeared from my real life. I have been trying to make up for that via email and snail mail and good old-fashioned telephone conversations, but I realize I have lost some friends permanently. I’m sure that if I was able to be out and about and see people in person, I would be able to handle this in a kinder and more graceful manner. But I am stuck at home and am fighting anxiety and depression along with my cancer. There is only so much I can do right now.

So cancer did not make me a nice person. It did not make me blameless. Cancer has weakened me physically and emotionally. Pain and other symptoms make me irritable. Anxiety makes me irrational at times. Grief steals my focus and my ability to empathize. I am a work in progress so I pray I have more time to keep growing and learning. In this, I find commonalities with the pre-cancer me.

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