Friday, April 06, 2012

Since When Is Cancer Easy?

I was asked about my tattoo recently.  The woman inquiring admired the delicate work and then said, "That's the breast cancer ribbon, isn't it?"

Luckily she said it to me, someone who isn't annoyed at that assumption. However, some survivors of other cancers are greatly perturbed that the symbol of the ribbon is automatically associated with breast cancer. Thyroid cancer survivors are especially perturbed at being labeled as having "the easy cancer". I know, I've see their comments in on-line thyroid cancer groups and their frustration over feeling as if they are going through something less significant because it isn't the pink cancer.

How can you blame them? Pink ribbons are everywhere! Check out this site to see the various ribbon colors and their meanings. I don't know how accurate it is, I just went to Google and typed in  "cancer ribbon colors" and several links came up. This visual is meant to make a point - there are lots of colored ribbons, there are lots of cancers, so it may be better to think before you speak.

The direction I'm hoping to take this post isn't toward being more conscious of  how many forms of cancer there are (you already know that), but more importantly to be considerate of the degree of empathy you give based on the kind of cancer.

Upon learning that someone has what could be a highly treatable cancer, please don't say, "Oh, well at least you got the easy cancer!"  As someone who has spoken those very words I do know they are meant to be hopeful and encouraging - I honestly believe that anyone uttering them has only the best of intentions. But, maybe we should consider eliminating them from our conversations involving cancer.

I know better now, I won't say those words anymore. Anyone faced with the trials of treating their cancer does not want to be marginalized. We don't want to think we've marginalize someone, I mean...cancer, all cancer, is scary. But if you find out a friend is being treated for breast cancer, your first thought, after offering any help they might need, is to offer to make a donation for a cure. But what if they have some other form of cancer? Donations are unlikely to be your first thought. No, you'll offer to do things for them or help in any way...but donate to their particular cancer cause? It won't be your first thought. And so, a cancer totem pole gets erected and, unintentionally, one form has been given more value over the other. My goal here is to bring awareness of how we react to, and support, those afflicted with cancers that are thought to be highly treatable.

I phrased that last statement as such because when you hear the news of someone having cancer you categorize the seriousness of their situation in your head - at least I used to. Breast cancer is bad. Colon and thyroid cancer? that cancer bullet. If you get THOSE cancers then you'll be fine, being highly treatable and all...wham-bam-treated-done!

Except, no.

So many people with breast cancer are treated, with relative ease (relative in relation to some other more advanced/aggressive cases...keep that in mind), and go on to lead healthy, happy long lives. Not all breast cancer diagnosis come with debilitating chemo treatments. Yes, I realize so many do, and we should never, ever forget that.

However, did you know that there are rare, highly aggressive, forms of thyroid cancer? An extremely small percentage of people have them - but they are very scary and very deadly. Did you know that this "easy cancer" has approximately a 30% recurrence rate (depending on what you read and who you believe) and that some people, based on their stage of cancer at diagnosis, are more at risk than others? And that isn't just in the years following treatment, it can be MANY years down the road. Did you know that thyroid cancer even HAD stages? There are people with advanced stages of papillary cancer (the "easier" of them) who go through traumatizing treatments and suffer debilitating side effects. Sometimes, they don't make it. Thyroid cancer CAN kill you. The papillary form, the kind I had, IF it comes back, could go into the bones or lungs. Yes, thyroid cancer can spread. And all thyroid cancer patients have to be checked each year to monitor for recurrence.

Perhaps not so easy, huh? 

My intent isn't to make you feel guilty for treating someone with "easy cancer" any differently than you'd treat someone with breast cancer.  I merely picked these two because 1) breast cancer is everywhere and you likely know someone who has it or has had it and 2) I had thyroid cancer and I read (daily) the trails and tribulations of many fellow survivors who are NOT having such an easy time. It hurts them to hear about how "easy" their cancer is when they are doing so poorly.

I didn't include statistics of mortality rates, etc...because they are not important. Viewing stats only serves to set up the idea that some cancers are more important than others. It isn't fair to anyone who has cancer for us to think that way.

I feel strongly that the cancer patient or cancer survivor alone should be the one to say whether their cancer experience was easy or not. Ease is relative, we are all so individual and unique.

Please, I hope you understand my intent. I did not aim to make anyone feel guilty about how they may have treated someone with an "easy" cancer. I do not intend to diminish the seriousness of breast cancer OR the need to donate to a cure. Never. Ever. I only meant to bring a bit of awareness for how we speak to those that are suffering from ANY form of cancer and not compare them. I picked breast cancer for this post because it affects so many (in so many different ways), as well as I picked thyroid cancer because I had it and know that it is, sometimes, not so easy.

My ultimate aim, for my own self, is to never assume that the mile you walk in your shoes is any easier than it is for me or anyone else.

p.s. - As for my tattoo, the butterfly is to symbolize my thyroid cancer, but the ribbon color is lavender (for all cancers) so that whenever I look at it I will remember not just what I went through but my grandmother's battle with ovarian cancer, my mother-in-law's "easy" fight with colon cancer and my friend Karen, who lost her battle breast cancer last year.


  1. The easy cancer? Lord. If someone ever mentions that ribbon to you -- you should say no, it's an AIDS/HIV ribbon and see what they say about THAT.

    People say some crazy stuff.

    1. Good idea, Denise! Yes, people say some crazy stuff...but, at least it fueled an idea for this post. :-)

  2. You articulated exactly what I feel. When people say "oh you had clean margins" or "oh that's the easy cancer" i just want to punch them out because no matter what kind of cancer you have, the cure is atrocious. And emotionally, getting diagnosed with cancer, just drains you. I didn't want to hear "don't act like this is going to kill you" or other crazy things people said to me. You so hit the nail on the head.

    And I love your tattoo :)

    1. Thank you! I knew you'd 'get it', having been through your own ordeal. I'm so glad you fought it and are healthy now!! And I love my ink, too!!! :-)

  3. Hubbypants6:29 PM

    Goddammit you made me cry again.

    1. I'm soon as you come home I'll make you all better!

  4. Having just beat Melanoma, I couldn't agree with your words more. When questioned as to why my husband didn't deploy with his Army unit last September, I explain it was because they wouldn't deploy him while I had cancer. They get all misty-eyed and concerned until I explain I had skin cancer... in my throat... Then they get to tell me I was lucky I had one of those there "easy cancers" Please explain to me what was easy about having 60% of my throat (tonsils, adenoids, uvula, roof of my mouth and soft palate) removed was easy. What part of radiation therapy was easy? What part of my cancer was less terrifying for my four children?
    I am healthy now. I am blessed beyond measure, not because I got an easy cancer, but because I beat the crap out of it.

    1. I'm so glad to hear that you are healthy now! Your whole ordeal sounds horrific and should never be minimized! Thanks for your comment and continue to beat the crap out of that disease! :-)

  5. I have no words just tears..,,,

  6. You are an angel, and I am in tears for the loss of your friend. In fact for that we cannot eradicate this whole indiscriminate disease.

    Keep on saying what needs saying M.

    Love and hugs.


  7. My mother had the "easy" kind of breast cancer...lumpectomy, radiation, no chemo.

    Tell HER it was easy. Bah.

    Brilliantly said, Melissa. Thank you.

  8. Anonymous3:14 AM

    Today I was given all clear for now ie remission by my oncologist
    I had thymic carcinoma early stage and I completely understand when you say people go oh lucky you not serious. Well I would love to say to them look,at my 20 cm scar on my back and ongoing trouble with my lung after surgery and radiotherapy. People need to understand its not just the cancer and surviving its the quality of life you seek when your left with side effects.
    I too am looking to get tattoo and hope you don't mind if I copy yours as I love it

    1. Congratulations for getting the all clear! I wish you much luck in your fight toward better health! My tattoo was inspired by another one just like it, so feel free to use it to inspire your own!

  9. Hi. I'm sure I'm arriving rather late to the party, but I was looking for possible tattoos to get in memory of my mother who passed a few weeks ago. She was a breast cancer survivor who fought it and beat it twice and had three butterfly tattoos and loved them dearly. I do realize that your tattoo is not a breast cancer tattoo, but by changing the color of the ribbon and adding a bit of script, I think it would make an amazing memorial for my mother. I was hoping maybe you could give me some idea as to how large it is. It would be my first and most likely only tattoo if I were to get it, and I want something fairly small for starters. Thanks, and I liked your post. I don't think cancer is ever easy so you should be proud that you beat it in whatever form. I support the American Cancer Society every bit as much as the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

  10. Suzette10:04 PM

    Thanks you for posting this. I just got diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and everyone is saying it's the "easy" cancer as well. I am very fortunate that I just need radiation and not chemo and my radiation dosage is low enough that I might not have any side effects, so I am told. But hearing the words "it's cancer" is scary. No matter what kind of cancer it is. No matter what the treatment plan is. And there is stages of all caners and every cancer can spread like you said. Also what you said about having cancer increases your odds of having cancer in the future by having radiation to get rid of the other cancer you first had. So to anyone who says there is a "easy" cancer yes there are one easier to cure and maybe not that hard of a recovery but we should not feel bad for having an easy cancer in their eyes. Cancer is cancer is sucks regardless of the degree of cancer and treatment. I love the tattoo. It's giving me an idea for mine :)