Instead of looking for sympathy, Joe Weinberg had an unlikely reaction: He wished the cancer had been worse.
I lost a testicle this summer. Which is not to say I misplaced it; I had it surgically removed. There was a tumor on it. I had it removed, and a week later found out for sure that it was, in fact, cancer.
I made jokes about it (That’s what I do when I don’t want to admit I’m scared). I talked about how I kicked cancer’s ass, how I got rid of cancer faster than the Israelis got rid of the Arab nations in the Six Day War. I put on a brave front; even my Facebook posts were positive. Anyone who tried to help me got told that I was just fine, that I was coping. I wouldn’t even accept much in the way of sympathy from my own wife. I just kept my freaking out to myself, denied most of my feelings, and poked at my scar as if I had no idea why I was doing it.
Why is that? Why did I feel like I couldn’t get sympathy? Like I shouldn’t get sympathy? I’m not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s because of some ridiculous notion that, as a man, I shouldn’t need it. That, as a man, I should be stronger.
It’s insane, really. Somehow, society has brainwashed me so hard that I convinced myself that cancer wasn’t a big deal, like I shouldn’t be making a big deal out of the whole situation.
But the thing is, cancer is a big deal. It’s a huge deal. Even when it’s small, even when it’s taken care of quickly. It’s cancer. The big C word. And that, my friends, is huge. It’s Earth shattering. Life altering. At least, it’s supposed to be.
Where does this come from? This image of ‘man’ that demands stoicism to a level that cannot be healthy, this ingrained belief that as men, we don’t need sympathy? It gets pretty ridiculous, and the side effects can be pretty nasty.
The whole situation really messed with my head. I found myself feeling bad that my cancer was taken care of so easily. Let me say that again: I wished the cancer had been worse. I wished that I had gone through those big moments, that re-evaluating of life, the restructuring what is important to you, all that stuff. I wished that I had been forced to consider my mortality a bit more. And why? Why would I wish for something that stupid? Because then, then, I would actually deserve some sympathy. That maybe, if it were bad, it pass beyond sympathy and I would deserve just the touch of my fellow man, that I would pass into the realm where it was just simple humanity, where my suffering would evoke that kind of empathy
If things were really bad, then I would be excused from manliness. If such a thing is possible.
I have no idea why this was such a big deal for me. I’m not the alpha male type. I don’t support traditional gender roles, I cry at sad movies, and I know less about sports than, well, anyone. I’ve never considered myself to be macho or manly. So why, with this, did it matter so much?
Part of it, I think, is about what I lost. I had two testicles. I have one now. I am, in the words of Stone Temple Pilots, half the man I used to be.
But really, what I need to understand is that I’m not any different than I used to be. There’s no issue of sterility; I had a vasectomy three years ago. It’s not my first surgery. There are some minor hormonal problems, but it’s all balancing itself out. The only difference between me now and me a month ago, (aside from one more scar and one fewer testicle) is that now, I’m a cancer survivor.
And that’s a big deal too. Even though I don’t feel like I did anything. Imagine a passenger on an airplane who falls asleep. While napping, the plane crashed. The passenger doesn’t wake up until a bit later, after everything was sorted out. So a plane crash survivor, only not really. That’s what I feel like. So why should I feel traumatized?
There it is again. The male stoicism demanding that I show how tough I am by not feeling my feelings. Think of this: when I described the person on the airplane, did you imagine a male passenger or a female one? In my head, it was a he, and I don’t think that’s just because I am.
But does he have a right to feel traumatized? Is he entitled to sympathy? Hell yes, he is. He came just as close to death as everyone else on the plane. The fact that he managed to skip out on a few seconds of anxiety, but that’s all. He was still inside a huge piece of metal and jet fuel that may have exploded; the fact that it didn’t is why he’s a survivor.
So I’m a cancer survivor. I survived it, even if it happened so fast that I didn’t have the anxiety of feeling the plane go rushing down towards the ground. I deserve the sympathy, no matter what stupid cultural definitions of ‘manliness’ might say.
photo by Rob Young / Flickr