By Kirsty Bailey (Editor)
“Illness is the ‘innately human experience of symptoms and suffering’” (Kleinman, 1988). Is this statement ‘correct’? Can illness only be defined as the human experience of symptoms and suffering? I personally think there is more to illness, more to the experience, and more positivity which can be taken from it.
I undergo chemotherapy every three weeks; this consists of spending three days in hospital attached to a chemotherapy drip. Yes I will admit, there are times when it gets me down: when it’s dark outside, when the visitors have gone, when the patients are tired and getting ready for bed. At times like these people (myself included) pull their curtains around at some attempt at privacy in a six person ward. It is then that reality tends to hit, then that the magnitude of ones scenario becomes real and the fragility of ones situation is appreciated. You are at the mercy of this drug that is being pumped in through a vein in your hand. Hoping that each drop of liquid is ‘working’, that it is killing the cancer cells. Because you have to believe that it is ‘functioning’, that the pain and discomfort is not all in vain. As Susan Sontag, a medical anthropologist who suffered with breast cancer, states “the treatment is worse than the disease’. There can be no question of pampering the patient. With the patient’s body considered to be under attack (‘invasion’), the only treatment is counter-attack”(Sontag, 1978). Aka chemotherapy.
It is when you are lying alone in hospital, attached to a chemotherapy drip that one ponders many things: many thoughts and worries cross ones mind. But the reoccurring thoughts I continually have are those regarding the love and support I receive from people. My family and friends are incredible, right from the start I never had to face this alone; they have been there through every single step and have always been by my side. The majority have been absolutely extraordinary, never forgetting when I’m in hospital, always texting or visiting. Without this love and support, chemo would be extremely isolating. It is the people around you, who show their affection and friendship that enables you to get through it in one piece.
Cancer in general, segregates you greatly from people, as a disease, it is extremely isolating. It distances you from people in ways that you cannot really explain. Again Sontag provides some insight when she states that “cancer fills the role of an illness experienced as a ruthless, secret invasion”(Sontag, 1978). An ‘invasion’ which occupies ones mind. There is just so much going on inside ones head; fear, anticipation, terror, confusion and general anxiety. These are all emotions which are very difficult to externalise, consequently they become very internalised. One succumbs to ones thoughts much more than previously, as the inability to express these emotions encompasses you. As a disease it affects every individual differently, making it very hard to even talk to those who are also suffering with cancer. Everyone’s experience is different, and everyone reacts to it in a very different way, no one will understand it like you do. Sontag states, “every illness can be considered psychologically. Illness is interpreted as, basically, a psychological event”(Sontag, 1978). It is this ‘psychological’ aspect, which significantly isolates you from those around you. One’s priorities tend to change entirely as well. You have an entirely different perception and view of existence and life, nothing is taken for granted, each day counts and is so significant.
It has been stated that cancer, as an illness affects not just the individual patient,“illness most often affects others as well (e.g family, social network, even at times an entire community). In some cultures, the illness is believed to be constituted by both the affected person and his family: both are labeled ill”(Kleinman, 1980). Cancer causes so much pain and emotion to those who are not actually physically affected by the disease in any way, but suffer the emotional repercussions anyway. These people are often forgotten as all the attention and focus goes on the patient, those around who stand by offering emotional and physical support therefore become isolated too. Their internal interpretation of watching cancer take hold of someone they love is bewildering and distressing. They feel powerless, and again every individual perceives it differently. Isolating themselves from others. No-one understands. That is not an antagonistic comment, it is merely a fact. No-one other than you understands. Whether you are the patient, the relative or the friend. Everyone deals with it differently.
However, this is what shapes friendships and what contributes to kindness and compassion. It is the attempted understanding of all of this. It is the interpretation of this isolation which is the bond that holds patients, friends and family together. It is the effort that people make, going out of their way to be there for you. Sending silly messages to make you smile, things to watch on iplayer or Netflix, bringing card games and food to hospital. It is these small gestures of love and friendship which attempt to battle the isolation. It is easy to actively let one-self feel isolated, but if you let people, they are there and they care. Together, cancer is easier to endure. Instead of focusing on how alone one can potentially feel with all of this, or how much one is suffering, I think you can instead see the beauty of human kindness, friendship and love. Friends and family really have just been so incredible.
If you let it, cancer can bring out the worst in you and those around you, but you have to focus on the best; this unique display of human affection, interaction and love. Yes some people have entirely disappeared, but others have been there through every minute of everyday and that is what is important. People can be incredible and so many are, this is what needs to be taken from the ‘human experience of symptoms and suffering’. Cancer, chemotherapy and ‘illness’, can bring out a slice of human radiance which needs to be observed, respected and admired.
All photographs are authors own. If you would like to learn more about Cancer Research and how you can help, why not click here.
Kleinman, A. (1980). Patients and Healers in the context of culture: An exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kleinman, A. (1988). The Illness Narratives, Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. United States of America: Basic Books.
Sontag, S. (1978). Illness as a Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.