While at a family gathering this weekend, my dear Uncle Jack was explaining my “illness” to a new friend, another elderly gentlemen, and I overheard him saying, “It’s just Lady Cancer.” His friend nodded as if he fully understood what “Lady Cancer” was and then they both looked at me - with a mixture of pity and of what I can only describe as casual dismissal.
I was, surprisingly, instantly angered by his statement. But why? The pity I understood. Unwelcomed as it is, I get it a lot when people learn my story. The sense of it being perceived as unimportant and the very strong feeling of casual dismissal (triggered by the word “just?”) was something new to me, something more tangible and something very objectionable.
I wanted to approach them both and ask them what they meant by "Lady Cancer" and more so, what was meant by the look they threw me. Instead, I stepped away to examine why I suddenly and very strongly felt as I did and who or what exactly was the source of my anger. (I learned long ago to pause and evaluate and not let my emotional reaction flow freely from my mouth….)
Uncle Jack and I have a good relationship and I am sure he meant no harm. He is of a prior generation (and I’m no spring chicken); perhaps he was simply uncomfortable with words like Ovarian, Endometrial or even Gynecological. His new friend was also of similar age and perhaps sharing any more detail would be considered indelicate. I am OK with that, if that was all it was – but as I sat with it, I realized that that is NOT what it was.
It was not a struggle with the words needed to describe the female anatomy, it was not the topic of cancer and it was not that I was there in the room though not in the conversation when this was being discussed – it was more than manners. It felt as if they had lessened the impact of my cancer by calling it “just Lady Cancer” – as if somewhere between them, there was an understanding that “Lady Cancer” was not a serious form of cancer - that it was somehow more delicate, more fragile, less devastating, less frightening, or somehow less impactful. It was as if, because it happens to women it is somehow not to be taken as seriously as if it were any other kind of cancer.
I got angry again and wanted to rush back into the room and say, " D#@n Right it’s Lady Cancer – she is fierce, relentless, determined, clever, strong-willed and seemingly indefatigable. She is also strategic and stealthy as she builds her strength, bold when discovered and often, when defeated, she does not completely retreat but instead lays undetected – for months or even years until she has regained her strength, until she is ready to come back into the light. “Lady Cancer” is smart – so smart that she has evaded all efforts toward her elimination or her impact on a woman’s life, despite millions of dollars being spent toward a better treatment and/or cure. She persists – because she is Lady Cancer.
Knowing that I have “Lady Cancer,” Dear Uncle Jack, should scare you just as much as, if not more, than any other type of cancer. The detection of this cancer is often in late stages as there are no/few early symptoms or detectable signs. The treatment for this cancer is brutal – surgery followed by extensive and long chemotherapy. It leaves one scarred, weak and forever impacted. It scares you – not only at the time of diagnosis, but most every day thereafter. It takes much and continues to take from you for years, eating away at your well-being, threatening your future and recurring with alarming frequency. Despite all scientific, religious and human efforts, the death rate from this cancer is among the highest of female cancers and the world is making few impactful strides in the effort to extend life and eventually to cure the world of this disease. This “Lady Cancer” as you put it is deadly. She must be stopped."
Of course, I wanted to say, that but didn’t ... for a whole host of reasons including that I might be wrongly interpreting his comment. Had I started down that path however, I would have had to continue...
"Despite this “Lady Cancer” being such a vile, destructive, strong and persistent disease, Uncle Jack, please do not forget that I too am a Lady – and let it be known that I too am fierce, relentless, clever, strong-willed and seemingly indefatigable. I, too, am strategic and stealthy, bold and persistent, smart and resourceful…but unlike Ms. Cancer, I am not alone on this journey. I have the strength of others – so many others, male and female alike – in family, friendship, professional services and advocates and in those who walked before me, those who walk with me and those who will walk after me. Together, and with much effort and resolve, we can defeat Lady Cancer and one day we will." (And then I would have hit him up for a donation to the Cancer Center - LOL - how could he refuse then, right?)
I have forgiven Uncle Jack his use of words . Still, the feeling of dismissal lingers and I will share those feelings with him when next I see him (calmly!). That said, I hope that no one else ever feels dismissed, or lessened or not heard when it comes to Ovarian Cancer (and all other forms of female gynecological cancers). And I hope that if you do, you are braver than I and address it directly. I know “this lady” will!