First of all, RELAX. I’m not digging into hot relationship advice about how to keep a man circa 1989. I’m addressing a specific section of Light His Fire by Ellen Kreidman that is about cancer.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a lot of “why me?” questions have cluttered my mind. Did I eat the wrong foods? Is there a toxin in my house? Is something wrong with me psychologically that is showing up physically as breast cancer?
As I reflect on how that last question, I keep going back to Light His Fire by Ellen Kreidman from 1989. In the chapter “Feelings Just Are,” Kreidman emphasizes the importance of expressing your feelings and needs in a relationship; she then goes on to talk about how “covered-up feelings can cause disease” and has a section talking specifically about people-pleasers and cancer. I listened to this as an audiobook way back in high school, and I internalized a message from this book about cancer that has stayed with me for 15 years. The message? People who are too kind and prioritize others’ needs get cancer. After my diagnosis, this message made me angry – especially at the author Ellen Kreidman.
Why I Disagree
“One thing is for sure: If you are expressing your feelings, you will not be loved, or even liked, by everyone. A relationship lost because of honesty wasn’t worth having to begin with. The cost of trying to please everyone is too great – the cost could be your life!”– Light His Fire, Ellen Kreidman
I have to disagree with the notion that my personality caused me to have cancer because the basis of that argument is that I’m broken or need fixing. I’m not. Sure? I am working to prioritize myself more. It is really hard – as any working mom with a two-year-old can tell you – but I didn’t earn cancer through self-sacrifice. In my mind, Kriedman’s rationale was at best an attempt to rationalize cancer to make people feel in control and at worse a scare tactic to frighten people into controlling their behaviors.
To channel my anger, I started taking sections of Kreidman’s book and ranting about them as my initial (very self-righteous) blog post. Like this:
“…it seems that the reaction to hearing someone has cancer is always similar: ‘Oh, no, not ‘so and so.’ He’s one of the kindest, most loving human beings alive. He’d give anyone the shirt off his back.’ Typically, cancer patients have denied their own feelings for the sake of others, a tendency that serves to make them well-liked.”– Light His Fire, Ellen Kreidman
What are people going to say when they find out someone has cancer? “Oh no, our neighbor Jeff has cancer? He’s always been a giant turd who never mows his lawn and yells at the neighborhood kids. ” Of course, you’re going to talk nice about people who have cancer. That’s just basic human decency.
“A hospital nurse I know who works exclusively with cancer patients told me that they are the most pleasant and easygoing patients to care for, because they always put the needs of others before their own. While other patients start ringing for the nurse if their dinner tray is five minutes late, cancer patients don’t even complain when their food is an hour late!”– Light His Fire, Ellen Kreidman
First of all, much like my dog, I don’t mess around with dinner. I WILL let you know if it’s late. Second of all, let’s think for a minute – why would cancer patients be less concerned about dinner? Could it be that they are on a series of drugs notorious for making you so nauseous that you can barely take a sip of water? Could it be that they are just so tired they prioritize napping over gelatinous hospital food? No, OBVIOUSLY, those gosh-darned cancer patients are just too nice to ask about the status of their food.
The Ending I Didn’t See Coming
This week, I finally got off my soapbox and decided to actually learn more about Ellen Kreidman. What I learned stopped me in my tracks. Dr. Kriedman was diagnosed with breast cancer just two years after writing Light His Fire. She passed away from cancer after 19 years. Wow.
I really wish that I could go back in time and ask Kreidman how her perception of cancer changed after writing that chapter in Light His Fire. Did she still think that somehow people got cancer from being nice? Did she blame herself for her cancer? I can’t find much on Google about her experience with cancer except a heart-breaking quote.
“When you are hooked up to life support, and you have no hair, no eyelashes, no fingernails, no toenails, and you are as close to death as you can be, you know the meaning of life, and it is to love somebody with all your heart and soul and to have them love you back.”– Ellen Kreidman
It took me several days to process this, but I have settled on a couple of key takeaways.
- It’s okay to feel angry. This week, like this blog post, has been a roller coaster ride. An article from Psychology Today explains, “Anger is a natural, valid emotion that responds to threats and injustice, and if expressed in a reasonable way, does not harm our health. So, how can we use anger productively? Science says that we should heed its rallying cry because it tells us something must change. It’s okay to feel angry.” Only after I felt and started writing about that anger was I able to be curious and look for that connection with Kriedman.
- We can relate in ways we would never expect if we have the courage to share, listen, and pay attention to each other. This whole time that I was upset and angry with Ellen Kreidman’s take on cancer, I was treating her like the “other.” How could she possibly understand what it’s like to have cancer? Does she know how upsetting her words are to those with cancer? It never occurred to me that we might have had a shared experience. When I did recognize that we had this shared experience, the division that I created between myself and Ellen Kriedman dissolved.
This whole situation – from the book excerpts to the passing of Dr. Kreidman – serves as a reminder that cancer is unpredictable and non-sensical. You think you have it all figured out and then bam! everything you know is wrong (cue my favorite Weird Al song).
There is only one thing that I am confident about: We are perfect – flaws and all – and we are worth caring for and fighting for.
I think that at the end of the day, Ellen Kreidman and I would have agreed on that.
Finally, I’ll end with a fantastic journaling prompt that Austin Channing Brown posted this week on Her Full Self that feels right on with this concept:
“How can you care for yourself amidst the disappointment, discouragement or disturbances in your life? What does your body need? What does your heart and mind need?”