Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cancer Shaming

I recently read this article and it really hit a nerve. Being diagnosed with one of the top 'it's your fault' cancers, I have been labeled repeatedly as the cause of my own cancer. I can tell you the first time it happened. It was over seven years ago, but I remember it clearly. I walked into the nuclear medicine department of my local hospital and was asked to lay down on an uncomfortable sort-of padded table and wedge myself under a giant slab of plastic coated metal. Then a medical professional of some sort came in and made small talk as my shoulder was prepped to be injected with radioactive toxins.

Medical Professional: So you have melanoma?
Me: Yeah.
MP: Wow. You're so young... [This line also got old really fast]
Me: Yeah...
MP: So you tanned?

It was more of an assumption than a question. So, you tanned. And as the words reverberated in the silence of my shock, it began to feel more like an accusation than an assumption. Then she stuck me with needles and told me not to move for two hours, but not before I felt I had to tell her the whole awful story of my diagnosis. 

That day I left cramped, sore, and sure of two things: 1. If my cancer had spread, it would be under my arm, not in my neck, and 2. I would be judged because of the type of cancer I got. 

Cancer shaming isn't limited to melanoma. Lung cancer survivors are also judged, as are survivors of reproductive cancers, especially since the link between HPV and cervical cancer has been widely broadcast; did you get cancer because you were promiscuous? In a society focused on health and wellness, even cancers not traditionally linked to specific behaviors are attributed to the patient's lifestyle choices; consumption of processed foods, failure to exercise, being chronically stressed, all become fair game for others to question and judge the cancerous. 

Let me break down for you what happens when cancer shaming occurs. For the person with cancer, prying questions about choices and behavior only foster guilt and call into question the role the survivor may have played in their own illness. For the asker, there is more to gain. If the patient did engage in 'cancer causing' behavior, while the asker did not, it reassures the asker that they are immune to cancer (and confirms for the patient that their cancer is obviously their fault). If the patient did not engage in cancer causing behavior, these questions lead to frustration, anger, and shame, as well as feeling the need to explain the cancer. 

Maybe after reading this you're thinking to yourself that I must have caused my cancer to be writing about cancer shaming and how much I hate it. You're dying to ask, but now feel like you can't...But did you tan? Did you wear sunscreen?

I'll give you two answers. The first is my gut response to cancer shaming questions. Does it matter? Will you have less empathy if you know I chose a path that led to cancer? Should I accept my fate because I brought this on myself?

My second answer is this: No. I didn't tan, and yes, I wore sunscreen. I'm telling you this much because I want you to know that anyone can get melanoma, and you should go see a dermatologist, even if you take precautions. I'll fight back the urge to tell you the whole story of how someone who doesn't tan and wears sunscreen ends up with advanced melanoma. Because despite what cancer shaming has conditioned me to believe, I don't owe anyone an explanation of how or why I got cancer. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

How Much is Your Life Worth?

I recently got a quote for life insurance. I have been married for all of two months and my husband's car died. Before we made our first big married purchase, I called our insurance company to get a quote for our new ride. At the end of the call, the girl asked if I wanted a complementary quote on life insurance. I was home alone and didn't have anything better to do than answer a host of personal questions, so I said yes. 

What followed was a twenty-minute game of 'Who Engages in More Risky Activities-You or Your Husband?' I was winning. I got points for never having smoked anything ever, not traveling out of the country for business, and skipping bungee jumping. I called it a tie on things like family history of diabetes, cholesterol levels, and maintaining a healthy weight. Then right at the end she dropped the bomb- personal history of cancer? I knew it had to be coming, but it was literally the LAST question she asked. And with that, I lost the game. 

I was informed that insuring me would cost three times as much as insuring my husband. I wasn't happy about this, so I answered even more questions that required me to pull out my pink binder with the Stupid Cancer sticker on the cover. From my medical binder, I gave the woman on the phone exact information on the size and depth of my cancer, as well as treatment history, so that she could call back and give me a more accurate quote. I was sure the premium would go down. It had to. I did chemo. I've been cancer free for over seven years

I got a twenty-second slap in the face the next day when the insurance company called back to inform me that the quote I received wasn't accurate. Turns out I'm uninsurable. At any cost. I promptly sent a snarky text to my husband letting him know the good news that I am worth far more alive than I am dead. Then I thought about what this meant. According to some mathematical risk analysis formula, it is so probable that I will die young(ish) that this company wouldn't even take me on. I am a liability. I made a point of not thinking too hard about this, though; I have come to terms with my own mortality. Cancer will help you do that. I have thought I was dying enough times that I have an advance directive, and I have put a great deal of thought into the legacy I would like to leave. Everyone dies. It doesn't scare me. 

I thought my fear of being uninsurable was over once healthcare reform became a reality, but I hadn't even considered life insurance. Who my age does? As frustrated as I am about this, I am trying not to let it get me down. For all the unexpected (and unwanted) 'gifts' that cancer has given me (surprise- your thyroid doesn't work anymore!) There are many more gifts that I am grateful for. I have traveled the country, met amazing people, shared my story, created artwork, found my inner athlete. I have perspective and priorities. My life took a sharp left turn it wouldn't have taken without cancer, and I am eternally grateful for the change in course, because without cancer, I wouldn't be who I am- Someone whose life's value can't be summed up with a mathematical formula. 

Hope. Love. Run.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Great Teacher

I hold a bachelors degree in elementary education. I graduated Suma Cum Laude and received an award for my near perfect score on the exam required to be an elementary school teacher. I also completed the coursework and passed the exam to teach art. Before I secured my first job, I started working toward a certificate in special education. I now have a masters in special education and I currently work under an additional state-issued certificate for something called an LDTC (you can look that one up, it's too complicated to explain what I do on any given day in this job).  I am currently considering a second masters in an educational leadership field.  I am twenty-eight years old and since I turned three, I have never really stopped going to school. Before I am an educator, I am a learner.

When I was an undergraduate student studying elementary education and fine art, I decided that I would never teach art. This is why I never actually bothered to pay for the certificate even though I took the classes and passed the test. Why? From the time I was ten years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be someone who positively impacted others; I wanted to be the person about which people looked back on years later and said, "She changed my life. I am better because of her." At ten years old I just didn't know what I would do to become this person. A few years later I decided teaching is what would do. With all the wisdom of a college student, I was certain art teachers were not the kind of people who had a lifelong lasting impact on their students, so I would pursue a career as an elementary school teacher.

Part of being a lifelong learner is repeatedly finding that things you believed to be true are actually quite wrong. I have also come to embrace the idea that the first step to becoming knowledgeable about anything is accepting that you just don't know what you don't know. Only when you accept this can you actually begin to learn.

In my current role, I get to see what's happening in a lot of different classrooms. These visits aren't about the teachers; I observe students. However, I have learned more about great teaching doing this than I ever did watching teachers- a common task assignment for college students studying education. 

What I didn't know in all of my finite college-student wisdom was that being a great teacher isn't about what you teach, it is about how you teach. I am blessed to work with many great educators, and from being in their classrooms and watching their students, these are just a few of the things I have learned.

Great teachers don't know everything, and their students know it.
This comes back to my point about lifelong learners. Great teachers admit when they are wrong. They look up information to answer questions posed by their students and aren't afraid to say "I don't know the answer to that question, but let's find out together." This teaches students that it's okay not to have all the answers. It also teaches them that being curious and asking questions isn't pointless, and that their teacher- a grown-up- cares enough to take the time to answer a question. Fear the teacher who knows everything, because she doesn't know what she doesn't know.

Great teachers cry.
My husband is continually amazed by the frequency with which I come home and report that there have been one (or more) crying episodes in my office. And these are rarely students. Great teachers do not cry out of despair. They cry because they love the twenty-or-so souls for whom they are the keeper for seven hours per day. They love other people's children so much that these children's triumphs warm their hearts and need to be shared, while a child's challenges become personal crusades of improvement. Often this passion is conveyed through hours spent brainstorming about how to reach a single child, the need to share a small victory, and through the corners of the eyes.

Great teachers have great students.
 ...Or at least they want their students to think they do. I have walked into many a classroom where students are told that they are capable, they are authors, athletes, mathematicians, researchers, musicians, artists, or scientists, and they believe it. Great teachers lead their students to believe that they are the best class ever. The smartest, kindest, most amazing class that teacher has ever had. Ever. The funny thing about having a teacher tell her students they're all of these things? They begin to believe it, and gradually they stand a little taller, slowly but surely they grow into all of these things.

Great teachers fill many roles.
Whether they have twenty students, three, or one hundred, great teachers make a difference not because of what they teach, or even who they teach, but because of how they view and interact with their students. A teacher's greatness is reflected  back, and can be seen in the eyes of their students. If ever you ask yourself if you are in the presence of a great teacher, or if you are a great teacher, look no further than your students, because their greatness is because of yours.