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What Cancer is Really Like

I received the following comment from a reader on my blog post My Psychology of Cancer, and I feel it is worthy and deserving enough to have its own special place. It’s for anyone who has suffered cancer, is suffering cancer, knows someone who has cancer or is looking after someone with cancer. Or for anyone one else who has an open mind and a warm heart.

I too had cancer a couple of years ago. Mine was not one of the cancers that people so freely talk about. It was ano-rectal cancer. People didn’t know what to say or how to react when I told them I had ano-rectal cancer. I could not understand the reaction. As they averted their eyes, I wondered what questions were poised to blurt out of the dropped jaws. Were they embarrassed by the mention of the anus? Were they trying to figure out how I went to the bathroom after surgery? Were they wondering “How does one get ano-rectal cancer?” The answers to those questions set in order are: I bet they were. I bet they were, but I would never say. Lastly, I wish I knew – it, like many cancers, just happens.

Lung cancer they could understand, breast cancer they could understand and even have 5 km runs to support research. But ano-rectal cancer! Who gets that!?  I could see the embarrassment on their faces. Ironically I found myself trying to assuage their discomfort. It was very difficult to explain to people that I had no idea how or when or why, just that it was a frightening diagnosis. I was numb. But decided there was nothing to do but to hunker down and fight…fight…fight! The alternative tact was one I never really gave thought to – which was to ignore it and die.

After the diagnosis, I was coached by everyone, even total well-meaning strangers on staying positive through treatment. I was also given a CD, by a wonderful nurse, herself a breast cancer survivor, who advised that I to listen to this CD every day after radiation as it promised to “guide me through the wellness process.” Frankly, it was so relaxing, I usually fell asleep, which I guess was a good thing – I must have gotten some subliminal benefit from it, right?

Then there was Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Mellon professor, who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and not given too long to live, and who went on the Oprah show to demonstrate his prowess and courage in the face of cancer. I predictably cried, after all I was watching the Oprah show, and his was a very sad story. Professor Pausch was losing a lot, not only his successful career as a popular professor, but a young and beautiful wife and a thriving family. It was a heart-wrenching story.

Yet I realized while watching the show – wrapped up in my comforter, sitting in what I now call “the sick chair”, still not fully healed from the surgery that I had gone through to remove the tumor; loaded up on Percocet and antiemetic medication, having just discharged from my first ever admission into a hospital, from the first of what would be two 96-hour marathon chemotherapy pump sessions, co-combatant with daily pelvic radiation treatments that would get increasingly intense and focused as the weeks blurred by. I was barely able to move or breathe from the fatigue, yet crying for Dr. Pausch, his wife and his babies. Surprisingly, or not, I found that I was embarrassed that I was also crying for myself. But, no I had to stay strong, like everyone was telling me to!

Yet even more surprising, and I couldn’t say why, was how unexpectedly angry I was also feeling toward Oprah and Prof. Pausch, as he did his one-arm push-ups on the show, to prove his might…and all of  those people that were telling me to stay positive. I hated him! I hated them!  I hated the treatment!  I was furious at the cancer!  Even worse, I hated everyone who said that their cancer “was like a gift to them.” I would have gladly handed them my gift of cancer along with a swift punch right in the eye!

Cancer is a terrible experience to have to go through. Many of us that survive it don’t have the wherewithal to find that strength that many others do, making that decision to be happy and strong despite the fear they are experiencing. The scheme that despite their diagnosis, they have to fight…fight…fight or “embrace” their cancer – there is still a great fear of the sudden diagnosis and the treatment that invariably follows such a diagnosis.

Yes, we all have the choice to fight, or embrace the cancer and be strong and apparently most importantly – stay positive…but please let’s not forget the fear, the embarrassment, the irrational shame, the loss of dignity, having to give up your independence to be cared for, losing your strength, and  feeling like you are going to die – being sick!  It’s all terrible…and those of us who do survive the cancer yet aren’t as strong as you, for us many emotional scars are left behind to deal with. I want to understand, and help others understand, that it is alright to feel anger, pain, isolation, fear, grief.  You can survive cancer, but the experience itself is not a cookie cutter event or has the same solution.

We all come out as best we can.


What Cancer is Really Like

Sonia Neale

Sonia Neale was recently awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study and research Borderline Personality Disorder overseas in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. Her previous Psych Central blog was called Therapy Unplugged. She is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books/Harper Collins. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three adult children, has studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, has a Certificate IV in Mental Health and is studying for a Psychology/Counselling degree. She currently works as a peer support worker in the mental health field. Please email her on davson at

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APA Reference
Neale, S. (2010). What Cancer is Really Like. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Feb 2010
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