Stop telling cancer patients to ‘Stay Strong’

3 Mins read

It’s time that cancer awareness campaigns adopted a different approach.

Looking around the oncologist waiting room as I wait for my mom to finish her appointment, I notice the only thing adorning the white wall is a big sign with a Winnie the Pooh quote that reads “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

How tacky.

On the table, some pamphlets teach cancer patients and their caregivers how to “Stay Strong” during these trying times and to never “Stop Fighting.”

My mom walks out of her appointment, collects me from the waiting room then stops to grab one of the other pamphlets that guides parents through teaching their children about cancer.

Nearly my whole life I’ve watched my mom struggle with breast cancer. I spent my childhood hearing people tell my family to “Stay strong.”

T-shirts were handed out at American Cancer Society fundraising events that had some cheesy stock quotes printed on them like “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.”

“I don’t know how I would have carried on, how any of us would have carried on, had it not been for the community around us,”

Arlene Maracina

I understand that the language is meant to be inspiring and to have patients and their families feel like warriors, but why are we constantly treating cancer as some sort of war people willingly participate in?

Of course, when talking about strength, the signs aren’t referring to physical strength but mental strength; something that’s not often specified.

Aside from the obvious mental toll a cancer diagnosis can have on a person, chemotherapy has been proven to cause a rise in depression and anxiety in patients.

According to the National Cancer Institute, one in three cancer patients experience mental or emotional distress and up to 25 per cent of survivors experience depression with many others exhibiting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Despite the double meaning of strength and the undeniable need to maintain an optimistic strong mental attitude during treatment, the rhetoric plastered all across cancer awareness promotional materials still irritates me.

By constantly telling cancer patients to stay strong, does that imply that nearly 50 per cent of breast cancer patients struggling with depression aren’t strong? When we parade survivors around as the strong ones that are still battling the disease are we simultaneously saying that those who have died are weak?

After 20 years of working as a sergeant in the NYPD while also raising a family, my mother has proven herself to be a remarkably strong woman, but during her illness, she got her strength from the support of everyone around her.

Every week a different family from both of my sisters’ soccer teams would drop off a home-cooked meal for our family.

My Friends and family at an American Cancer Society Fundraiser
Friends and family at an American Cancer Society Fundraiser [Charlotte Maracina]

When my mom spent a month in the hospital after a near-fatal allergic reaction to the chemotherapy my aunts would spend the nights at our house so my dad could spend his nights at the hospital visiting her. Without this support system, our family wouldn’t have had the mental strength to carry on.

Whether or not you’re struggling with cancer, mental health is something that needs to be continuously improved upon through the support of those around you, by going to therapy or with the use of medication.

Putting “Stay Strong” on a poster isn’t empowering, it’s demeaning and belittles the complicated emotions that come along with such a deadly disease.

Throughout the years of my mom’s illness, there were countless times when all mental strength left us. I recall moments when my sisters, only 12 and 13 at the time, would sit on the couch crying to my dad.

Years later I’d hear a story of my dad calling my aunt hysterically crying at the thought of losing his wife and having to raise three teenage girls all alone. Were we not staying strong simply because we were showing vulnerable emotions?

If cancer awareness rhetoric is meant to help people stay strong, it’s time to be a little more specific as to what being strong means.

Rather than telling people to simply keep their heads up and keep a positive mindset, we need to promote how that glorified strength can be achieved while also letting everyone know it’s okay to have moments of vulnerability.

Signs in oncologists’ offices should promote different mental health counselling options and the pamphlets handed out shouldn’t be titled How to Stay Strong but rather How to Get Support.

Cancer patients and their families aren’t superhuman warriors, they’re normal people experiencing a difficult time, and they should be spoken to like that.

Featured Image by Rowan Youseff via Behance.

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