Putting Compassion into Cancer Awareness

For 14 months, I lived with someone who was dying from cancer. My father. I was with him nearly every single day of his illness until his last day. Witnessing the dying process up close and personal for a little over a year has changed me. I imagine it’s an experience that would change anyone. It, especially, changed my perception on the meaning of compassion. And I’m going to share with you how exactly. But, first I want you to think about:

What Does Cancer Awareness Mean to You?

Cancer awareness campaigns are everywhere. There are countless products, fundraisers, and marathons marketed to promote a cancer-related cause.

But, what, exactly, are we being made aware of?

No amount of cancer awareness marketing, ribbons, races, t-shirts, wristbands, and the like could have made me aware of the harsh reality that I experienced watching someone I love suffer from this awful disease. If anything, the marketing and the products related to cancer awareness seemed to undermine what a cancer patient and their family actually goes through.

Cancer isn’t Pretty

All the pretty cancer awareness merchandise began to lose their meaning once I became personally affected by cancer. The day I received that phone call on November 2, 2011 and heard the words, “he has 6-9 months.”

After the initial panic attack, and several weeks of uncontrollable anxiety, reality began to set it for me.

I remember, at one point, researching these cancer awareness campaigns. I even thought about getting involved in raising money for a cure. But I couldn’t get into it. It didn’t appeal to me and I wondered why.

Why wouldn’t I care about a cure?

But, that wasn’t it. It’s not that I didn’t care.

And it didn’t take long for me to understand my feelings.

Living with someone who has cancer makes you realize something:

This person doesn’t need me to put on a pair of running shoes and “race for a cure”. This person needs me to be here.

While people are off racing for a cure, a cancer patient may be lying in bed, hoping someone will race to their bedside, or to the phone. They need the presence and support of family and friends for what, often times, represents the last witness to their life.

What We Are Typically Made Aware of

Cancer awareness campaigns will make you aware that cancer exists (obviously). You will learn about statistics and more statistics, and what medical advances have been made in treating it or finding a cure and how we can donate money towards more research.

All good things to be made aware of.

Unfortunately, the chances of a CURRENT terminal cancer patient actually benefiting from FUTURE medical advances and cures are slim.

Supporting cancer research is supporting hope for the FUTURE.

And it’s a wonderful hope for those future cancer patients. But, many current cancer patients won’t be here in the future. They’re here for a short time. That’s reality.

A harsh reality that isn’t fun to talk about.

It doesn’t sound positive or optimistic or hopeful.

But we can’t dismiss the reality of current cancer patients because we are so busy looking towards the future with optimism.

And I know society will always be more interested in talking about a hope and a cure, and in sharing a positive affirmation. But how do we know what people really need if we’re only interested in re-framing their story to something more positive?

The Type of Cancer Awareness That Goes Viral

I, recently, watched a video of a cancer patient dancing in the doctor’s office and lip syncing to “What Doesn’t Kill You (Makes You Stronger)” by Kelly Clarkson.

The young lady in the video seems like an awesome person.

Her energy and attitude is inspiring.

But, when we, repeatedly, expose ourselves to this good and inspiring side, then how do we learn compassion?

Compassion happens when you’re aware how someone is STRUGGLING, when you are aware that someone is in PAIN, when you get a REAL look at what someone is going through.

It is through that awareness that compassion is born.

“Our brokenheartedness at the injustices we witness is what gives us compassion. So when we rush past these messy and uncomfortable moments, we take away the experiences that teach us mercy.”

-Jeff Goins, Wrecked

In REALITY, chemotherapy doesn’t make you stronger.
It makes you weaker. It’s poison.

My father wouldn’t have had a fraction of the energy required to attempt the performance in that video.

But, nobody wants to hear that. The image of an optimistic cancer patient dancing and  singing is what people want to see. This is ALWAYS going to be the type of “cancer awareness” that gets shared across the interwebs to the point of going viral.

No matter what devastating thing anyone is going through, society expects you to remain positive and to keep your struggles to yourself.

A Different Kind of Hope

I didn’t write this to be dark, cynical, or gloomy.

I wrote it because I AM hopeful.

I’m hopeful that we can learn how to better show empathy, not just feel it.

Real empathy occurs as a result of acknowledging uncomfortable or painful situations – not dismissing them because it sounds “too negative”.

I’ve observed (even in myself) that avoiding uncomfortable or painful situations is commonplace these days because we’re constantly being told to “do whatever makes you happy”. I don’t know about you, but facing pain doesn’t feel good or make me feel ‘happy’, but it’s necessary if you want to learn empathy.

There’s always some motivational guru somewhere trying to make us look on the bright side – AWAY from the negativity and the pain. People are so busy promoting positivity, they forget that real life isn’t always positive. Accepting that reality is what will help you learn empathy.

Learn to tone down the HYPER-optimism

“Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world, to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology.”

-Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided

Since the first day I learned of my father’s illness, I realized quickly that people were more interested in telling me how I should feel, or how to look at it in some positive way than listening. And some were afraid to hear about it at all.

So, I stopped talking about it.

I’d rather say nothing than act delusional by sugar-coating reality.

The first step to learning compassion is to tone down the HYPER-optimism.

The key word here is HYPER. As in too much of a good thing.

Thanks to all the motivational quotes being shared online, it’s gotten to the point where many are so determined to stay positive that they don’t know how to act around someone who is having a bad day. They don’t know how to treat a friend who might be dealing with a challenge or a REAL tragedy.

The first thing many do when hearing about someone’s bad situation is quickly try to turn their lemons into lemonade. I rarely hear the phrase “I’m sorry to hear that” or “I understand how you feel” anymore.

People are more likely to say “it could always be worse” which is a trite cliché that does absolutely nothing to make right now any better. It does, however, successfully dismiss what someone is going through.

Why wait until it’s worse before you start showing someone compassion? How bad do things have to be before you’re willing to empathize with another human being? When did compassion become so discriminating?

Here’s what you have to understand about compassion:

To acknowledge – not dismiss – pain and suffering is REQUIRED in order to show compassion. If you find yourself constantly dismissing pain – whether it be yours or that of others around you – if you find yourself using a positive quote to make everything bad sound better, it’s possible you will NEVER learn compassion.

To understand why, you have to take a look at what it means to have compassion and empathy.

Compassion and Empathy explained:

Compassion and empathy are essential human qualities that allow one to feel, understand, and respond to the suffering of others.

A component of compassion, empathy is the recognition and understanding of the other’s suffering.

Empathy requires an openness to receiving and holding the other’s experience without reservation or judgment.

Empathy is passive but absolutely attentive.

It involves entering into and staying present in the painful experience of the other without moving away from that experience by trying to change it.

-taken from deathrefrenence.com

How a motivational quote can weaken your compassion and empathy capabilities

Here are a few random quotes that if taken too literally will weaken your ability to show compassion. When reading them, picture yourself or someone you love with stage 4 cancer:

“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.”

-Byron Katie

“Every problem is a gift – without problems we would not grow.”

-Anthony Robbins

“There are no negatives in life, only challenges to overcome that will make you stronger.”

– Eric Bates

Alone, these quotes are fine and helpful if applied in the appropriate context. You could use the quotes above to turn a daily challenge into an opportunity.

But, if you apply a positive quote to everything, it could alternatively make you view something like cancer – which is far more serious than just a “challenge” as something light. As something that is actually good (!) or can be overcome if you have the right attitude about it – Which is delusional.

For far too many people, cancer is a death sentence.

All the positive quotes in the world won’t change that reality and to treat people like it would,  is condescending, insulting, and displays a real LACK of compassion.

We have got to learn when to shut off the optimism, put our personal philosophies aside,  and just listen. Feel. Be there. Support. Empathize.

Learning Compassion

I am far from the perfect person to be teaching compassion.

While I do feel compassion for others, I don’t always know how to show it. It’s hard. It’s overwhelming, at times. To feel so much for someone, much less demonstrate my feelings in a meaningful way.

So I’m not pointing fingers at anyone who isn’t doing enough.

I have not done enough.

This experience has made me aware of how hard compassion can be to demonstrate. How helpless we can feel when we encounter a person who is facing a predicament as tragic as a terminal illness.

It can feel paralyzing because there is little we can do that will make the situation better.

I remember the last week my father was alive at the hospice center he had pain that was almost impossible to control. The nurses were in tears because all their efforts to control the pain wasn’t working.

At that point, I wanted to stay away.
I didn’t want to be there and watch him suffer.
I realized that this compassion thing isn’t easy.

Why compassion is hard

“Compassion comes from the root words “to suffer with,” and for that reason many people actually fear it.”

-Deepak Chopra

What’s hard about compassion and being there for someone in this kind of situation is that it’s hard to put your feelings of discomfort aside and just be there. Because it IS uncomfortable to witness someone suffer or even just hear about it.

I truly believe that when some people aren’t there for you or aren’t showing enough concern it is NOT necessarily that they don’t care. Sometimes it’s that they can’t separate their own emotional response from the situation. It’s like watching someone bleeding and not doing anything about it because the sight of blood is too much for YOU to handle and so you do nothing for THEM.

That doesn’t mean it’s OK to do nothing.

I think we all need to learn to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who is hurting.

If we can do that, we realize quickly that somebody sure better put their feelings of discomfort aside and do something. Because the worst thing is looking back and wishing you did more but you didn’t because it was too uncomfortable.

People will always do the comfortable thing

The hardest part about losing my father was that it was very lonely. It still is. I dealt with most of my grieving alone. And even if I did try to reach out to others, it seemed like nobody really understood what a hard time I was going through.

Most of my sympathy came in the digital form.

Digital Communication Can Quickly Cheapen a Tragedy

I had lost my father. The hardest losses are that of a spouse, a child, and a parent or sibling. So, all the virtual hugs, the sad emoticons, the ‘sorry for your loss’ text messages… they all seemed empty. Though, I knew the intentions were good.

Showing empathy isn’t easy, so I’m not judging. But, I think we’re going to have to teach this generation of digital communicators which circumstances merit a real phone call or a real action, and not a text message or a DISlike on Facebook.

And we’re going to have to learn what type of actions constitute support because re-posting a meme or Facebook status that says “share this to show your support for those affected by cancer!” doesn’t actually do much to support a cancer patient.

But, I understand.

I know, in our hearts, we all want to do something, so if someone asks us to share a post, then why not? It seems like that’s better than nothing, and I know how paralyzed one can feel when trying to be sympathetic.

Which is why a shift of awareness is in order.

Putting Compassion into Cancer Awareness

While researchers are working on cures and making us aware of their funding needs, we could be asking ourselves – what are the patients and their families going through and what do they need right NOW? Now when there is no cure? Are we making people aware that?

Cancer awareness shouldn’t only be about raising money for a cure.

It should also be about teaching compassion.

About learning how to support those affected by cancer – both the patient and their family. It’s a first priority.

Learning compassion comes first. Even before finding a cure.

Because compassion makes a difference RIGHT NOW in the lives of CURRENT cancer patients and their families.

It is also a main part of the driving force that motivates people to support cancer research, anyway. The more compassion you feel for the human beings affected by cancer, the more likely you are to support cancer research.

Compassion wins the day in ways that people don’t talk about enough.

And I believe we don’t talk about it enough because we’re distracted by all the pretty cancer awareness merchandise. We’re distracted by the fundraisers and marathons and talk about cures that do not yet exist that steal the cancer awareness spotlight.

To me, it’s all marketing. It’s treated like a business and it can be dehumanizing when inanimate objects and events steal the attention away from real live patients.

I remember reading a t-shirt that said:  “I wear purple for my dad” and while I could empathize with the sentiment, I couldn’t understand how a certain color t-shirt would do anything FOR my dad.

And, then I started looking at it differently.

All this merchandise…. it isn’t really for the patient, is it?

It’s for the families and friends of patients.

We wear these colors and ribbons for our own comfort. Because we want to honor our loved ones by any means possible. And that’s OK.

If it were just about donating money for research, then we would write our checks directly to those organizations instead of purchasing a souvenir.

There’s value in honoring a person with what you buy or wear. But, if you really want to support a person, and not just a cause, you have to be there. You have to learn compassion.

Because cancer affects PEOPLE.

Behind every inanimate, lifeless ribbon…
there is or was a person with a pulse and possibly an entire family and circle of friends affected by their battle.

To put compassion into cancer awareness we’re going to have to stop creating all these distractions that take us away from the real work that needs to be done.

The work of caring, supporting, empathizing, and being there.

A work that requires NO amount of ribbons, or motivational quotes, but, rather, it requires us to look outside of ourselves long enough to take action and DO something that matters.