By Heather Millar
I think I know how HRH Princess Diana felt. I may have been waiting my whole life to write that sentence.
A few days ago, an old high school acquaintance commented about something I’d posted on Facebook from my breast cancer blog, My Left Breast. She said she thought I’d had an amazing journey. She said she thought I had courage. She said I was there for others who now are suffering and alone. She said I was AMAZING (her caps, not mine).
Don’t get me wrong. I like this person. She’s not a fake Facebook friend, one of those friends of a friend of a friend. I actually know her. But—full disclosure here—she IS (my caps) someone that I have not seen in the flesh for three decades. Even so, how could I not feel all warm and fuzzy about someone who says those nice things about me?
Yet is it ungrateful and rude to admit that it makes me feel funny? When I was in active treatment, I cannot count the number of times that various friends, loved ones and strangers said things like these:
“You’re so courageous.”
“You’re really inspiring.”
“I don’t know where you get the strength. You give hope to a lot of people.”
Who can honestly say they don’t like hearing things like that?
But, deep inside, I never felt that I really deserved all those outpourings. Princess Diana didn’t either. The effusive praise sparks an uneasy pang, a guilty whisper in your ear murmuring that you don’t quite deserve the kudos. Who do you think you are? Why is everyone making such a fuss? Am I really being so great? Well then, why don’t I feel so great? Alas, those doubts may be the sole thing that I share in common with British royalty.
Decades ago, about the last time I saw that high school friend who inspired this post, someone gave me this bit of wisdom: “Life is forced growth. You’re never really ready for anything. You just deal with it.”
Over many years and many crises, I have found this generally to be true.
I was not ready for cancer. But it happened, and I coped with it as best I could. I don’t think I did the cancer patient thing with particular brilliance.
Somehow, I put one foot in front of the other, just like everybody else. I suffered, raged, bore up, whimpered, and tried to laugh when I could, just like everybody else.
I tried to make sure to say thank you and to tell my loved ones that I loved them. Sometimes, I was selfish and crabby and demanding. Sometimes, I powered through things (Christmas comes to mind) because I knew they were important to my family, just like everybody else.
People always mean well when they tell a cancer patient, or any patient, that we’re brave. It’s also a way of cordoning off that scary illness. As in, “You’re so brave: Thank goodness I don’t have to be that brave.”
I’m guessing that most of the people who have complimented me since my diagnosis have had reason to be plenty brave: Does my cancer experience make me any more valiant than you, dear compliment-er, as you face your nasty divorce? or your underwater mortgage? or your child struggling with a profound disability? or your parent fading into dementia?
I’m thinking, “No.” Cancer doesn’t make me unusually heroic and brave any more than divorce or any of those other problems do. It just makes us human.
All that said, don’t stop with the compliments. Just make sure to include yourself.