Running On Empty

Posted on: December 11th, 2015 by


I’m under the pressure of living up to others’ expectations of what a cancer survivor should be.

Over the years, well-meaning people’s comments have stirred these feelings — from saying I was courageous to have faced cancer to telling me there was a divine reason I survived.

Got Courage?

I don’t.

I want to run away from that hero-on-a-pedestal sculpture people have made of me and now worship because I am oh-so-tough and a cancer-slayer badass and all of that.

Truth is, if I’ve survived thus far, it’s through pure random luck. I’ve done nothing extraordinary or heroic. Throughout treatments, I’ve done what most other cancer patients do: show up.

Truth is, I’m a chicken when it comes to cancer. I was terrified from diagnosis to treatment to survivorship. In fact, I’m even more scared as a survivor (I hate that word) than I was when going through treatments. While in treatment, I didn’t know how insidious cancer really is. Although I initially believed the disease would kill me, eventually I felt that, if I were lucky, I’d be treated and then be “done.”

Boy, was I wrong. I now know I will never be done with cancer. People are dying of metastatic disease, and I can’t feel that good about surviving if others are dying. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to be alive, but I’m beside myself with all these never-ending losses.

Then there are my own demons. Every. Single. Day. I never “won” the battle (I dislike the war metaphors) against breast cancer. In fact, the battle still rages on, inside me, day in and day out. Every day I must battle my fears, depression, and anxiety.

This is the legacy cancer left me.

I yearn to run away. Not only physically run away from my doctor’s appointments and tests, but to run away from my fears and despair. To run away from PTSD. To run away from my pre-cancer life because I naively believed I would remain in good health. I’m trying so hard to run, and one leg is leading the way, but the other is stuck in the quicksand of memory.

It’s a good day when terror releases its grip on my mind. I do have good days. But they are a struggle to come by sometimes. I work overtime to maintain my psychological health.

In the land of survivorship, I’m like Humpty Dumpty: I can see the writing on the wall — I am broken and nobody can ever put me together again.

Divine Intervention

I have a strong faith most of the time, as I explained in a past post. Interestingly, all the times I prayed during diagnosis and treatment, I oddly never prayed for my own survival. Just prayers.

It’s true that my post-cancer life is better than my pre-cancer one in many ways. But some well-meaning folk have mistaken my gratitude for all the wonderful things that have come my way for my gratitude to God for divinely intervening on my behalf — by giving me cancer so I could be a better person. And so I could help others through my writing.

First of all, that’s a bum rap, an unnecessary burden and pressure on God. I do not believe cancer was a divine gift to help me turn my life around and/or help others.

Secondly, while I hope I can help others through my writing, in no way could I ever believe I was the one chosen to survive thus far (and I grieve that I can only say “thus far”) because I have more value to add to the world than people who did not survive. This is utter bullshit nonsense.

I have no more value than anybody else in this world. Yet some religious nuts people believe I’d been blessed with cancer so I can help others and that is why my life has been spared thus far. That this is what lends meaning to my life.

I want to set the record straight: I’m no modern-day hero leading the world on a self-help harmony ride.

Truth is, for the past couple of months, I’ve been the antihero. I’ve allowed myself to sit in the backseat and let PTSD drive.

Telling me I’m courageous and/or that my having cancer was divine intervention pisses me off doesn’t sit well with me. Plus there’s pressure because people perceive me as someone I’m not.

Frankly, I don’t like pressure cooker living.

I’m more of a crockpot gal.

After all, to me, the metaphor of the courageous, blessed cancer survivor is a crock.

Artist: Pawet Althamer

Artist: Pawet Althamer

What kinds of pressures do you feel in relation to cancer?

Has anyone told you a shocking interpretation of why you got cancer?

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17 Responses to Running On Empty

  1. Becky had this to say about that:

    Interestingly, I don’t get the courageous for battling cancer, but I do get it for blogging about it. I think people who are not writers, who are not bloggers, do not appreciate the compulsion to write. They see the telling of the story as a form of courage. For many people, the telling of the story via a blog IS courageous. For me, it is just a compulsion. I cannot NOT do it.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Becky,

      It’s interesting that people see you as courageous for blogging about cancer. Like you, I feel the compulsion to write and don’t feel I’m particularly brave for putting my experiences out there.

      I wonder, though, if maybe people are right about the courage to blog candidly. So few people are willing to share their lives so openly. Just a thought. But, then again, I don’t feel courageous when writing a post.

      Thank you for your comment and keep writing!

  2. Scott Johnson had this to say about that:

    Easy on yourself Beth! I’m sorry you’ve slipped into this hole and don’t have anything cheerful to add other than if you are manic like me it eases off. And you know that already.

    Christmas is tough, regardless of how you feel about it there’s a kind of pressure to smile when you don’t want to and “relax” in the midst of too much input.

    Have you read the article I sent to Rebecca M’s small-c site? It covers the sense of loss of self we all seem to feel and all react to differently. You don’t have to read it all or tell me you liked it or anything like that but maybe you could write about something in it that caught your attention.

    The most unacceptable pressure I get is from the cancer clinic. They shut me down at the very beginning and judged me as essentially unappreciative of their phony kindness. Well, I was very sick in the same way I was when my heart quit the second time. Because I misdiagnosed into having to experience death I had no intention of repeating the process but they see it as logically unrelated to cancer as it was my heart and this tells me they don’t see me as a whole person, or maybe not a person at all but a difficult puppy or something. Anyway, I get aggressive because it’s my life and then get shit for that. I think even Ms Manners might allow a bit of impoliteness in my case here:-)

    Have had a number of reasons given for why I’m still alive. The usual religious ones around a greater purpose being held for me. It’s interesting that un-sick living people don’t seem to need a purpose they just keep going without doing anything useful? That doesn’t seem fair. Of course being saved for some greater purpose doesn’t seem too shit-hot either if the prize is being “allowed” to die.

    Maybe we could make a list of good things to avoid for health living.

    If I haven’t irritated you too much we can talk more in this reply box or by email:

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Scott,

      Thank you for your support. I know you have been through hell and back, and I’m sorry the people at the cancer clinic have been horrific to deal with. This is unacceptable coming from a health institution.

      Yes, I did slip into a hole and was very buried in sorrow. But I tend to rebound, and so I did!

      You hit on a good point regarding the holidays. Everyone is told that this is a happy part of the year, but in reality it’s hard to be happy when one feels depressed. Nevertheless, depression for me is fleeting, and I do experience happiness much of the time. Writing posts like this one is therapeutic.

  3. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Oh do I relate to this!

    Beth, I am sorry you’re still feeling pressured from others to be someone you are not. I feel like I am now drifting away from some of my relationships because I can’t stand their lack of understanding. I don’t blame them though. I just feel I can no longer tolerate it and so I am keeping my distance. Taking a break from people is helpful.

    Like you, I’ve been told God put me in this situation for a reason. One person even insinuated I was being punished (a family member and you will never guess who). Are these people aware they will face mortality one day?

    I have a lot of faith too and I never think God gave me this illness. I also don’t think I’ve been chosen to be one of the lucky ones. It feels wrong.

    I get pressured a lot from different people. I hate having my emotions/feelings suppressed. That’s the one thing I have the most difficult time with. People just don’t want to know the truth. They want me to be quiet, grateful and to stay positive.The thing is I am trying to have some sense of normalcy in my life. Trying to be a human being, like I was before cancer, helps be feel more normal. And this doesn’t make me ungrateful.

    I never felt like a hero because of cancer. Like you, I feel lucky. And yes, I feel sad others don’t have the same luck.

    I am sorry you are dealing with the aftermath from cancer. You are coping the best way you can.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Rebecca,

      Nobody should tell someone afflicted with an illness that God is punishing you. That’s really awful. I can understand why you’ve drifted away from some relationships. I, too, have distanced myself from others who I deem as toxic to me.

      Like you, I hate it when people try to stifle my feelings and I tend to try to express myself in spite of their trying to keep me quiet.

      Thank you for your empathy. I think we survivors each cope the best way we know how. And that has to be good enough.

  4. Elizabeth MacKenzie had this to say about that:


    Showing up requires a kind of gentle courage and optimism. And it is enough. More heroics are not required.


  5. Eileen@womaninthehat had this to say about that:

    Isn’t it amazing that after all this time past treatment, we still hear the annoying comments and expectations? I’m learning to let it roll of my back. That or isolate myself. :)

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your comment. I have isolated myself at times, but it’s better, I think, to let things roll off our backs. Sometimes I’m more successful at it than at other times.

  6. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: Cancer’s Legacy | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  7. Carrie had this to say about that:

    I can so relate to how difficult survivorship is. I’m in the thick of it right now. I related to so much of what you wrote here.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Carrie,

      I’m sorry you’ve had cancer and have a difficult time with survivorship. It’s a tough road, not at all the way movies and television portray.

      Hang in there and take one day at a time.

  8. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    Once again, you and I are on the same page, or rather pages! There is so much bullshit out there in Breast Cancer Land, it really is quite remarkable. Each of us merely muddles through the cancer maze, at least that’s how I see myself – muddling through day by day. I appreciate Elizabeth’s comments about how showing up is enough, no further heroics required. Thanks for another exceptional post, Beth. xx

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      You’re right about the mass amount of bullshit in Breast Cancer Land. Yes, we each try to navigate the maze — a really great analogy. Many times we hit a wall in the maze.

      I also liked Elizabeth’s comment; it was a comfort to me.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  9. Cathy had this to say about that:

    One of my oldest (as in long-time) friends is unfortunately of the “everything happens for a reason” variety. During some of my many complications, she told me that this was happening because I needed to ‘evolve’, and that I should ’embrace’ what was happening to me.
    Embrace a bilateral mastectomy, hemorrhage and two transfusions? Three bouts of C Diff? A blood clot? Seven surgeries? Sudden forced menopause? Really?
    I’m still having difficulties getting past that, even though I know she meant well. I need to just let it go.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Wow. I hear you.

      The old “everything happens for a reason” excuse. I’m sorry you had to deal with all the horrible physical and emotional trauma, as well as told to “embrace” what was happening and “evolve.”

      It’s just too much. Have you thought about telling your friend that what she said has hurt you emotionally? Just a thought. Letting it go is easier said than done.

      You’ve been through so much hell. Just know you are in my thoughts, and I’m sending you a cyberhug.

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