Walking away from ‘emotional cancers’

girlIt’s not really possible to simply walk away from cancer. At least, I don’t find it possible. But I’m wondering — is it possible to just walk away from other toxic parts of life?

I’ve realized that I need to free myself from some painful relationships that have kept me down. Situations that are just too draining to try to fix, or fight. In order to truly achieve this freedom though, a person needs to be at peace with the decision and stick with it. But when emotional pain is connected to family and close friends, it makes things difficult and sensitive.

Walking away from some relationships instead of working to “fix” things through forgiveness or giving-in has been challenging for me for a couple of reasons.

As a cancer patient, I’ve often felt pressured to face my unfinished business. People tell me that I would be more at peace with myself if I did. There’s also this misconception that ‘running away’ from problems is a sign of weakness. But here’s the real problem though — holding on to painful relationships has done more harm than good in my situation.  Why would I want to condemn myself to suffering by trying to meet other people’s unrealistic expectations of me?

The other issue is that my needing to walk away from emotional difficulty means I’ve lost some level of support. People judge without understanding. People condemn. So on top of me dealing with the fears and uncertainties cancer brings, and on top of all the other work and life challenges, I also have dealt with the burden of trying to make others understand where I am coming from. I find myself exposing my emotional scars more often than I really want to. It is exhausting and disappointing when people won’t try to see from my perspective. Or, maybe, they don’t want to see from my perspective to keep some level of denial.

It seems I am often expected to accept bad behavior from people because I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. They expect me to be more welcoming of people’s imperfections, to forgive and forget quickly when other people’s actions and attitudes have hurt me. It’s as if the survivorship relationship I have with my breast cancer is supposed to have made me more enlightened and humble and grateful. If I can feel more at peace in relation to my health situation, there is no excuse for me not to be able to reset my other toxic relationships.

But I don’t take my cancer personal. Cancer isn’t a person. It doesn’t have feelings or the ability to recognize its mistakes. Cancer isn’t aware of the pain it has caused. It doesn’t discriminate. And cancer’s actions are done with no understanding of what’s happening. There are no manipulations or intentions. I can never have an honest, productive conversation with cancer. It’s simply impossible. No matter how many times I ask questions and demand answers, cancer will never respond. It’s frustrating because I can’t fully walk away from it. It will always be with me and not by choice. And none of it is negotiable. But I’ve been forced into this relationship.

With people however — even with family — the relationship is a choice.

When it comes to this notion of “forgiveness,” people have different ideas about what it means. I myself have thought about it from time to time. Recently, Eileen Rosenbloom — a friend and fellow blogger— wrote about the concept of ‘forgiveness’ and what it meant for her to forgive (you can read her post, “Forgiving the Clueless”). I was touched by her piece and in many ways it resonated with me, particularly this part:

Forgiving requires me to let go of the offense but doesn’t demand I continue a relationship with someone who spews toxicity, even when it’s sprinkled with concern. It doesn’t force me to be friends with someone who upsets me.”

I am aware that emotional cancers caused by family can be a lot more painful than those caused by strangers because there is an expectation that families aren’t supposed to hurt one another. But they still do.

Sometimes we choose to carry those emotional cancers with us for the rest of our lives for different reasons – religion, family dynamics, financial needs, etc. But I often wonder if we contribute to those emotional cancers by allowing ourselves to be hurt, over and over and over again. Is it possible to fully walk away from emotional pain? Can we truly live (and die) in peace knowing there are still unresolved issues to deal with?

I may not be able to walk away from breast cancer but the good news is I still have control over building healthy relationships and creating a healthier environment for myself. Why would I want to live the last years of my life feeling sad?

Realistically, I don’t think I win either way by trying to cure my emotional cancers or walking away from them. But I need to stick to the situation that gives me less pain.

About thesmallc

I'm Rebeca. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. But there's more to my story: I am an animal lover. I love to cook. I have a wonderful fiancé who doesn't mind walking my rocky path with me. We currently live in New York. ---------------------------------------- “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
This entry was posted in Coping after cancer, Reflections, Support and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Walking away from ‘emotional cancers’

  1. scottx5 says:

    Excellent posting Rebecca. I’ve thought a lot about forgiveness and can philosophically accept it but only as an abstraction. At the in-your-face emotional level there’s no visible payoff. And spiritually? I’ll the Buddha take care of it. At the level of survival, we need allies who will challenge us and push us but lay off the judgment junk. Relationships are supposed to provide an exchange of mutual support and though there are bound to be imbalances in needs that shift back and forth we shouldn’t have to be constantly releasing people from their clumsy behaviour.

    This is a difficult question, this forgiveness thing. My sense is that forgiveness represents an ideal of not giving up on resolving a problem. At a high level, and in an abstract world, its a fine thing to aspire to. Maybe later when we become saints we can set up a lemonade stand and forgiveness center? For now, like you say, we need a HEALTHY environment.

    • thesmallc says:

      Hi Scott! Hope you are doing well. I’ve never understood the concept of ‘forgiveness’. I feel about forgiveness the same way I feel about ‘pretending’ about my cancer. I cannot suppress my feelings and emotions. To me, forgiveness is also similar to grieving — we must allow the necessary time for something to heal. I can’t force it. And there’s no formula on how to do it as everyone grieves differently. It does get tiring when some people force their beliefs on to you. I am often been told that I need to ‘prepare myself’ spiritually. So I am not sure I’ll be setting up that lemonade stand with you. I might not meet the criteria.

  2. Rebecca, I was very touched that my post resonated with you. I think each relationship requires its own choices. There’s no One Size Fits All. I’ve had to create space, even let go of, a couple of friendships that were toxic for me. Family relationships get complex, but there’s usually a bond of love that weaves itself through the difficult relationship. I’ve had that and learned to have appropriate boundaries while still maintaining the relationship. I’ve learned when I feel good, I can tolerate certain people better. When I don’t, I don’t make contact. I guess it takes a lot of fine tuning and is never easy.

    • thesmallc says:

      Eileen, thank you for writing that post. I agree it is different with every relationship. Family relationships in particular are more challenging. I think it’s in part related to that level of care we feel. If we didn’t care, then it would be much easier to walk. I like the idea of having appropriate boundaries though. We manage the best way we can. Thank you for being here.

  3. Carrie says:

    Wow. I’m inhaling and exhaling several times.

    I wish I knew the answer to this dilemma. I think we all have toxic relationships in our lives, some more than others. I have always felt that I was expected to rise above them. For some reason, I was always expected to be the better person, even if I didn’t want to. I’m not sure why I am always in that position.

    I don’t think I have felt more pressure to do so since cancer. Maybe even the opposite, in fact. Like I shouldn’t have to deal with other people’s shit while I’m dealing with so much awfulness in my own life.

    But I think, at some point, we all have to look at the relationships in our lives and decide which ones are lifting us up and which are bringing us down. And we have to let go of the ones that are bringing us down. We have control of that. We don’t have much control over the cancer that has taken over our bodies and our emotions.

    This is easier said than done. I can talk the talk but I can’t always walk the walk.

    Great post. Sending love.

    • thesmallc says:

      Carrie, I’ve also been asked to be ‘the bigger person’, and to be honest, I don’t want to be anymore. The same way I don’t want to be strong all the time. I want to switch my roles from time to time because it gets very tiring to be expected to stay a certain way. But I also don’t want to be part of the drama. I am glad you don’t get too much pressure on how you should act. Like you said, we have enough to deal with! Shouldn’t other people acknowledge that first before setting unrealistic expectations? We must do what’s right for us. Thank you for your support.

  4. Bev Hyde says:

    With my cancer diagnosis came slowly but hard the realization that I am my garden. It is up to me to protect the soil, ensure proper hydration & drainage, allow good sunlight, weed out anything distracting to the health of my garden and provide healthy organic material so my flowers and veggies produce good and healthy fruit, flowers, food and seed. If I’m lucky, some of my seed may be welcomed into someone else’s garden spreading joy and happiness. I have learned to recognize and toss weeds quickly before their roots take hold. In the beginning of my journey, I had multiple bad weeds which sucked and drained so much of my garden’s good stuff, but now my garden requires less weeding time and it’s THRIVING. The gate to my garden is always open to strong, healthy, organic material that feeds my soil. But will never again be open to envirnomental toxicity including some people.

    • thesmallc says:

      Thank you for the beautiful analogy. You just made me realize something I haven’t even considered before: we must try to welcome only the good things in order for us to be able to give back something positive. I appreciate your words of wisdom.

  5. Hmm, forgiveness is, well, not overrated, but I think it is not always deserved. My client and I have chatted on this topic–and agree that some people–even some family–do not deserve it. One of my favorite anecdotes on this topic is from Paul McCartney, who said he does not forgive Chapman. And Sir Paul seems like a well balanced happy sort! So I’m not sure it is so absolutely necessary–at least in some cases.
    Funny, that expectation that cancer patients, because of their new status as humble, grateful, improved, blah blah, are to above it all and OK with everything minor or not. For me I find the contrary to be true. Since I had cancer I have a meaner streak, and am less patient and am certainly not gonna waste any more time on people who make me unhappy! Expectations be damned! xo

    • thesmallc says:

      A few people have said to me that we forgive for ourselves, and not for others. I think this idea is parallel to the concept of ‘moving on’ after cancer. I simply can’t force myself to feel a certain way. I also can’t pretend. I just can’t stand when some people force their beliefs on to me and try to intimidate me. At the same time I think they often do this because they don’t want to face my reality. And I agree that many patients feel they can’t waste any time. I’ve lost a lot of patience since my diagnosis too. It’s all about priorities now (and some venting). Thank you for your support.

      • So glad you say that about not being able to force yourself to feel a certain way. I’ve had this conversation on and off for the past few years with my client as we talk about “choosing to believe” or “choosing to think positive”. Choice is a funny thing–oh well fodder for a future blog post….

  6. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    Another very thought-provoking post. I guess I’m lucky, I am not in a lot of troubling relationships. Maybe this is one advantage of being an introvert! As you know, my family dynamics is complicated, as far as my relationships go with my extended family. And I work from home now, so that whole arena has changed. It’s about balance I suppose. Again, right? And forgiveness is something that’s sometimes offered without sincerity, if that makes sense. We say we forgive, but do we really? Not the same as forgetting, that’s harder in a way. We can’t walk away from cancer, or at least I can’t, but we can walk away from certain relationships that are harming us emotionally if we choose to. At least temporarily. Like many things in life, relationships evolve, shift and even “disappear” too. Thanks for the post. Pardon my rambling. xx

    • thesmallc says:

      That’s another question I’ve often asked myself, do we really forgive? I agree with you that many times forgiveness is offered without sincerity. I can’t forget. And perhaps this is a defense mechanism we all use. But my goal is to be able to ‘remember’ without feeling pain. I need to allow time for this to happen though, just like we do with grieving. Thank you for your support, Nancy.

  7. Mia says:

    Spot on! A must read for any cancer survivor struggling with toxic people and their toxic waste!

  8. The Accidental Amazon says:

    You are so ahead of things to know not to take cancer personally. I admit I never did either. I never asked, “Why me?” because I already knew how impersonal serious illness and catastrophe are. I see this every day with my patients.

    I like your reply to CC that forgiveness is for ourselves. Whether we have cancer or not, it’s a challenge to identify the toxic people in our lives and choose how to deal with them. Sometimes, the healthiest thing is to walk away from them, whether we forgive them or not. And to forgive ourselves for needing to leave them behind.

    Great post. xoxo, Kathi

    • thesmallc says:

      I am so glad you don’t take your cancer personal either. About forgiveness, it is very hard to walk away completely. And you’re right, as part of that process, we also have to be able to forgive ourselves for doing so. xo

  9. Mandi says:

    Life is too short to waste energy on toxic relationships and things that take up too much of your time and energy (leaving you too depleted for those things and people that make you happy).

    • thesmallc says:

      Right on, friend! That’s one of the issues I was having. While I was trying to fix something that was out of my control, I was also sacrificing my healthy relationships. I would rather invest in those. I hope you’re doing well. xo

  10. bethgainer says:

    “It seems I am often expected to accept bad behavior from people because I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.” I love this post and find this quote to be so insightful. I’ve walked away from many emotional cancers, such as my ex-husband and friends who really weren’t friends. With family, it’s more complex. I think it’s good to walk away from toxic situations and relationships whenever possible.

    • thesmallc says:

      Hi Beth! Yes, walking away from family is more complicated. I also think emotional pain caused by family is more debilitating. The one thing that annoys me is the intimidation from others (for religious reasons, for example). I have to do what’s right for me. I am sorry you had toxic situations to deal with but I am glad you made the right decisions for yourself. Thank you for commenting on this post. I hope you’re doing well. xo

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