And yet, somehow we do.
“My problems are nowhere near as bad as yours are.”
“I feel terrible complaining to you about it when you are going through so much yourself.”
I hear these types of comments all the time.
I make these types of comments all the time.
Placing ourselves in a hierarchy of pain and suffering serves to ground us; no matter how bad our situation is, there’s comfort in knowing there is always someone who has it worse.
Like being on a really, really long line at the movies or at airport security, as long as there is someone behind you, it somehow seems better.
Hospitals use a pain rating scale: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?” When our son Colin was in the hospital for 9 days with a ruptured appendix, they asked him to rate his pain. I was intrigued at his difficulty in answering the question. At the time he was 5 years old and didn’t understand what they wanted him to do. Colin didn’t understand the concept of comparing one level of pain to another; His abdomen hurt… that’s all he knew. He used a binary scale to assess his pain: did it hurt or not? As adults we know better: pain is not a yes-or-no question. Rather, there can be levels, ranking, quantification, and comparisons.
These mental exercises are necessary to keep us going through hard times, no matter what type. Before I got cancer, cancer was a “go-to” negative reference point. I mean, how many times had I, and everyone I know, thought or said, “I’ve got health problems, but at least it’s not cancer”?
I had done that a lot.
A benign lump needs to come out? At least it’s not cancer.
A mole needs to be removed? At least it’s not cancer.
My son has hand and neck deformities and a cyst in his spinal column? At least it’s not cancer.
Then one day it was cancer.
So what could I pacify myself with?
At least it’s not terminal.
At least they can remove the body parts the cancer is in.
At least this debilitating treatment will be temporary and I have the possibility of returning to a normal life again.
Then there was the big one: at least it’s happening to me and not my child.
And when I found out that my cancer had metastasized, I could not calm myself with those comforting refrains anymore.
Now it is terminal.
Now they can’t remove the body parts it is in.
Now the debilitating treatments are permanent and I don’t have the possibility of returning to anything close to a normal life again.
I have often said I have hated becoming anyone’s negative reference point. “At least I’m not her” people now often think of me. I always thought that meant they pitied me. I didn’t want that. But now I realize that it is okay for people to be glad they haven’t walked in my shoes– in reality, that’s what I want. I don’t want anyone to be where I have been and where I am; I’d like to be the lightning rod that keeps other people safe. But we all know it doesn’t work like that.
Denial has never worked for me.
Denial doesn’t kill cancer.
I still believe it could be worse.
I know that is true.
And so, for today, I focus on the fact that I’m not the last one on line.
On the really challenging days sometimes that knowledge is all I have.
And on those days, that knowledge is enough.