Sicklit Literally Traumatized Me

I promise this isn’t turning into a Cancer Blog. Just give me a while to get it out of my system. Along with (hopefully) the actual cancer. 😛

Almost two months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s stage 2, but for the first week, I didn’t know that, which made it probably the most terrifying week of my life so far.

So I started panicking, which is about what you’d expect. For starters, I immediately decided that I was going to die. Like within a year. This subsided somewhat after I learned that the cancer hadn’t spread.

But a lot of my panic was coming from some weird places. I kept experiencing intrusive thoughts about how horrible chemo and cancer in general would be, and they were VERY specific and visual thoughts.

I’ve never been close to someone going through cancer treatment. Certainly not close enough to see what happens to them. My grandfather had it when I was very little (and died of it later), but all I remember of him is that he was happy, did calisthenics every morning, and always gave me fruit to eat, so I’m guessing I don’t have much memory of his treatment.

My only exposure to what cancer and chemo are like is the media. As a child in elementary school, I remember being assigned cute picture books about kids with leukemia. Later, I read a few YA novels where cancer was a prominent theme—what folks now call “sicklit.”

Sicklit is controversial because there’s the usual uproar about kids and teens reading about topics that they’re “too young” for, as if kids and teens don’t experience sexual assault, illness, or abuse. The opposing argument is that reading these books will help young people confront these things if they have to experience them, as well as helping them empathize with others who may be experiencing them.

Usually, that’s the side of any argument about children’s media that I’d fall on. However, right now I also have to acknowledge the fact that I’ve basically been traumatized by literature about cancer meant for young people.

That entire first week, my brain was constantly re-showing me vivid scenes from books I’ve read. Excruciating bone marrow transplants. A teenager going outside at night during a thunderstorm wearing just her nightgown, hoping to catch the flu so her next chemo treatment gets delayed. A girl shocked and crying when she finds a chunk of hair falling out while she brushes it.

That last one about kills me, especially. Don’t get me wrong, losing your hair (if that’s a thing that’s important to you) would be painful no matter what, but why her shock and terror? Did nobody fucking bother to tell her that hair loss is the most common side effect of chemo? Did nobody offer to take her to a salon to get her hair buzzed or shaved, and let her pick out cute wigs and hats and feel some shred of control over the situation?

I mean, sure, it’s fiction. Of course it’s unrealistic. But it’s unrealistic in the most sensational possible way.

Don’t even get me started on teenagers with cancer meeting, falling in love, and dying. That shit made me feel guilty for even having partners right now.

The more I talked to other people, the more I realized that it wasn’t just me, and I hadn’t just read a particularly horrible set of books. My partner asked me once how it feels to get chemo, and recalled a book he’d read about a teenage girl with cancer who described it something like this: “Every drop of that poison burned as it dripped into my veins.”

I about died. Unlike (apparently) the author of that book, I actually have cancer, and I can tell you that chemo feels like absolutely nothing. It’s just like any other IV infusion. You just sit there and chill out or sleep. Yes, sometimes having an IV in your arm can cause some mild discomfort. BUT IT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO FEEL LIKE BURNING. PLEASE IMMEDIATELY TELL THE NURSE IF IT FEELS LIKE BURNING. I’m sorry for yelling but really, you need to tell your nurses and doctors if stuff hurts that’s not supposed to hurt, and how are you supposed to know it’s not supposed to hurt if you read a whole stack of books telling you in the most graphic and gratuitous ways that it does hurt?

That said, over a long period of time, chemo infusions can damage your veins. That’s why they’re not generally done through IVs anymore, but through ports. I explained this to my partner, and he said that in the book, the girl refused to have a port because it sounded weird, and her doctor didn’t try to reassure her, explain how it works, or warn her about the drawbacks of IVs for chemo. You know, informed consent. Okay then, guess we’re going for damaged veins and a hell of a malpractice lawsuit.

I’m glad my partner and I had this conversation so that he didn’t have to go into this thinking that I have to spend two hours in excruciating pain every two weeks for four straight months. Vicarious trauma in caregivers is a thing, just like the vicarious trauma I’m experiencing from reading these things that never even actually happened.

Sometimes when I talk about sensationally unrealistic portrayals of cancer treatment in YA literature, I’m told that somebody’s friend somewhere had cancer and their doctor WAS totally terrible, and their pain was not managed in any way, and they were NOT warned about obvious things like nausea or hair loss, and they WERE told to just suck it up and deal. Yeah, it happens. Some doctors are totally terrible, and until recently many cancer treatment protocols really didn’t care about side effects, and sometimes people are told to suck it up even when relief is totally available.

And it would be one thing if these types of stories effectively prepared young people to deal with such things in real life. But they don’t.

Because the way you deal isn’t by internalizing the idea that your suffering is inevitable and this is just how things are going to be. The way you deal is by learning how to advocate for yourself when possible, and developing resilience and coping skills for the rest.

That starts with knowing that 1) you can and should tell your doctor about all of the side effects and discomfort you’re experiencing; 2) you’re allowed to ask your nurses, techs, and doctors ALL of the questions you want; and 3) lots of procedures and treatments can be altered to make them more tolerable for you, but they won’t be unless you ask.

For instance, my entire treatment team knows about my medical phobia and how it works. (I should note that this phobia is improving significantly now that I have to confront it constantly.) That’s why they often have on hand ice packs and smelling salts in case I start passing out, and they usually find a way to prop my feet up to reduce the chances that that happens. I’ve been prescribed an anxiety medication that I take before procedures, including chemo, and a topical lidocaine cream, which I use beforehand to reduce the sensation of needle sticks. (It’s not that I mind the pain itself; it’s that the pain triggers the panic reaction.) My nurses know not to tell me any unnecessary details about what they’re doing, and they expect to see me put my eye mask on so I don’t see what they’re doing, either.

As a result, I don’t have to deal with uncontrollable panic attacks, and my nurses and techs don’t have to waste their valuable time waking up my unconscious ass and waiting for me to stop sobbing. All I had to do was ask.

I’m sure someone’s going to ask me if I think that authors just shouldn’t write about teenagers dying of cancer or suffering through treatment thereof, but as always, I find that question boring. No, I don’t advocate censorship. Anyone should be able to write (almost) whatever they want. Free speech. Next.

A question I find more interesting is: Do authors who write for young people have a responsibility to try to write in a way that makes their lives suck less rather than more? I think the answer is yes. And as a young cancer patient—so, exactly the person that these books are supposedly for—I can tell you that irresponsibly-written cancer narratives contributed to making my life an unbelievable living hell when I was first diagnosed. I was having flashbacks to stuff that never happened to me or to anyone else. I still do, sometimes.

So much of the pain and misery that comes with a cancer diagnosis is unavoidable. This was completely avoidable.

Of course, there’s a good chance that despite patronizing claims to the contrary, most YA novels about cancer aren’t really meant to prepare young people for anything other than fetishizing and gawking at other people’s pain. Yes, there are some that encourage empathy, too—I do think that The Fault in Our Stars is well-written in that way.

But the fact is that most young people—most people—aren’t going to get cancer. Most people are only going to know someone who does, and maybe the more painful and horrific they think the treatment is, the more they will sympathize, and the more they will help, and the more grateful they will be that it wasn’t them.

So, what I should’ve realized during that agonizing first week is that those traumatizing books were never even written for me. They stopped being for me the moment I got that phone call.

Which is too bad, because I could’ve used a book that could guide me through it. A book that’s honest about the experience of cancer, in all of its horror but also in its mundanity, its potential for nerdiness and curiosity, and even its moments of transcendent clarity. I’m never one to sugarcoat, but even I’ll admit that it’s not just some endless parade of painful side effects, hair loss, and needles. In with all of that bullshit you also get your teenage brother always hugging you super tight and not letting go until you do, and watching the people in your life come through for you in the most extraordinary ways, and having your cat insist on sitting on your surgery incision which hurts but also oh my god she really thinks she’s healing me, and dancing naked–truly naked, no cap or wig–to Christmas music while decorating the tree because it’s almost the end of the chemo cycle and I feel fine, and getting to do physical therapy in a sweet heated pool that the hospital has and floating in that pool and letting the back of your head rest in the water until you don’t hear anything anymore and it’s all OKAY for a goddamn second.

Nobody wrote that book for me. Maybe after I kick this thing, I’m going to write it myself.

A thought that occurs to me that I didn’t find a way to stick anywhere into this essay: YA novels about cancer focus disproportionately on death. I mean, yes, to state the obvious, cancer can be fatal. I don’t think we really need to belabor this point. But did you know that the 5-year survival rate for all childhood cancers combined is 81%? Did you know that the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer, which is the most common cancer, is 90%, and for prostate cancer, the second-most common, it’s 100%? These statistics are from 2006, which means that they’re probably even higher now. (Except prostate cancer. Sorry, probably not much improvement to be made on that one.)


And how many of the cancer books I read contained even a little fucking blurb in the back about breast self-exams? Zero. A breast self-exam saved my life. I rest my case.

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Sicklit Literally Traumatized Me