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Three ways I am releasing cancer shame

By Marel Blackstone

Why are people ashamed of cancer?

This question stuck in my head like a rock in a crevice. It would not be freed until I thought about it more. I was questioning why I had a hard time talking about my cancer. I was open about it when I had stage two cancer, but now that it came back, I've had difficulties talking about it. It's like I don't want to give power to it, to acknowledge in some manner that it exists. But I must. And I have with those who are closest to me. Yet it's as if I don't want to disappoint others who I only know on a surface level, who were there when I fought early stage cancer and supposedly beat it—well, I had for a while as I was in remission.

The jaded me says you never truly beat cancer. True, some people are lucky enough to go through a cancer battle and stay in remission for the rest of their lives. However, what does not go away is the wondering if it will ever come back—at least that's how it was for me.\

A world of denial

I lived in a world of denial. I did not want to think about cancer after my oncologist told me I was cancer-free. Yet I knew on my initial scans before I started my treatment for early stage cancer that there was a spot that lit up far away from the tumor site. My doctor tried to reassure me that it was only the size of the tip of a pencil and that chemo would take care of it. Yet I was skeptical. It was hard for me to feel 100 percent confident that all would be okay.

The spot was too small to biopsy at the time. There was not much more that could be done than to proceed with treatment. I believe it was by the end of that year that my doctor proclaimed me cancer-free. And then the living was to commence. I was on my way back to life without cancer.

Ultimately, four years later I was diagnosed with stage four cancer as lesions reappeared. I was terrified. I told close friends and family. Their support was vital. Yet, I struggle with feelings of guilt that it came back and I pray that medication and healing will take it away.

Unrealistic expectations

I have also realized that I am ashamed I have cancer again. Growing up I was taught not to let things get me down and to keep getting back up. Those are good lessons, but those around me never seemed to want to be bothered with alleviating my concerns when life knocked me down. I grew up without a sense of comfort when things got tough. Instead, I put on a strong exterior and tried not to let others know things bothered me, for fear of being considered weak.

And, then I realized the problem with society's idea of always being tough and not letting others see your emotions is that it's an unrealistic expectation. It does more harm than good. It hides what makes us human and invites shame. So how do I move past that shame?

How to move past the shame

1. By acknowledging it. This could mean journaling to help clear one's thoughts and to more fully understand the feelings inside you. It is the act of being present with those emotions that is needed to understand what you are feeling.

2. By talking about it with trusted individuals. For me this means therapy.

3. By owning it. For me, this means accepting what I have been feeling and understanding how shame has impacted my life. And knowing it's time to make it better.

Only after this can I release the shame. It thrives in secrecy and for me comes about when I hold onto judgements from the past. Intellectually I know they are unfair judgements, and I in no way was weak for getting cancer or having a hard time with the emotions that came with it. Only when I am ready to experience the emotional pain of what I have been through can I begin release the shame. It's not easy, but it's worth it. I'm worth it.

I have realized putting up armor to avoid the pain has not or does not serve me well. It only makes me feel worse. I vow going forward to acknowledge and feel all of my emotions as I encounter them. And slowly, those emotions in the crevice of my mind move like a pebble, gaining enough momentum to roll away.

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