Cancer Clowns and How to Spot Them

Cancer Clowns and How to Spot Them

Before I get into the Cancer Clowns thing… a little appreciation:

I’m having trouble coming up with the right words to say how much love and comfort I’ve found in the cancer community on Twitter. They have offered me support and empathy at times when those things could not be found elsewhere. (Hello, pandemic!) And I’m as protective of those beautiful friends as I am my own family.

That’s why when a random cancer patient pisses me off, I put a clown icon over their profile picture and blackout their name and handle instead of outing them on my blog. The community doesn’t need infighting or grief.

Cancer Clowns™ don’t just show up on Twitter, though. They also pop up in the oncologist’s waiting room or stop you in Walmart as you and your Rollator are making a beeline for the Gatorade. On the best days a Cancer Clown is niggling and annoying, and on the worst days? A total menace.

So, before I tear the featured tweet to shreds, I want to be clear: Cancer Clowns are people who have been diagnosed with cancer. They are not (well-meaning but perhaps sometimes hurtfully awkward) cancer muggles or cancer caregivers—people for whom I have infinitely more grace and understanding. Cancer muggles are people who can’t fully understand the cancer life, and because of that—and this is important to acknowledge—I can’t and don’t expect them to refrain from accidentally saying something that hurts.

Here intent matters.

Alright, with those disclaimers out of the way, into the weeds we go.

The once cancer-having woman (her profile says she’s now no evidence of disease or NED) who wrote the above tweet—we’ll call her CeeCee from here on out—replied to one of my tweets where I wondered out loud if I should turn a mini fridge into a nightstand by saying “Sorry if this isn’t what you want to hear but…” which clues me in from the start that she’s not sorry at all about what she’s fixin’ to do.

(Sorry for another aside, but CeeCee’s lead-in reminds me of a brilliant line in the show Archer where Mallory says to Lana, “I mean, look. I don’t want to sound racist but…” And Lana responds sardonically, “But you’re gonna power through it.”)

(By the way, what I did there in that last paragraph. Did you see it?)

And then just as anticipated, CeeCee shoots of with some nonsense about how she only ate “healthy” calories. “Healthy” in this context is judgmental as fuck, but not everyone will immediately recognize it as such. Some people, like cancer patients who are having their first go-round with a CeeCee of their very own, will feel chastised or at-fault for their dietary choices when reading a comment like this one. I contend that’s ALWAYS the point of these bullshitters.

But CeeCee’s comments reveal she has quite a bit in common with the fat-shaming, exercise-obsessed people of the world—maybe she even was one before diagnosis—that everyone has the same access to food she does. That people who eat 99-cent cheeseburgers instead of 18-dollar vegan, organic meals from some meal kit delivery service could afford to eat “healthy.” If only they chose to. CeeCee’s comments presume all people (even all cancer patients, for fucksake!) possess the ability to cook or shop for themselves.

Y’all. Eating is healthy. Even greasy cheeseburgers have been known to keep people alive. Not everyone understands the roles that disability and poverty play on food choice, but if you’ve read this blog post to this point, maybe you’re starting to have an inkling. Shaming people about what they choose to eat is not the flex you think it is.

There’s also the hugely presumptive tone in CeeCee’s tweet that my cancer experience is like hers. I don’t know if she has/had brain cancer or not. I don’t know if she has IBS and issues with vitamin malabsorption or not. I don’t know if she was on rage-hunger enhancing steroids like dexamethasone or not. But more importantly, she knows none of that about me.

Finally, CeeCee doesn’t miss an opportunity to gloat: “Was told my results were amazing and I came through in remarkably good condition.”

Okay, so?

I mean, what an absolutely self-congratulatory trash sentence to write to someone about to go through her third regimen of chemotherapy. We can, all of us, celebrate our joys in life without pretending other people suffer BECAUSE THEY WANT TO.

This philosophy of consequential choice is so pervasive. I think it’s because people are scared.

We’ve been internalizing the message of personal responsibility for so long that we believe everything comes down to a choice we make. And if you can’t stop an existing cancer by eating the “right” thing, maybe you can’t prevent a cancer either.

It is scary. I know. But piling that heap of internalized bullshit on top of other cancer patients is a terrible way to go through this life. Stop doing it!

As I was recently reminded by @ThanksCancer on Twitter: When people die of cancer, it’s not because cancer patients failed. It’s because treatments failed.

Also? Death is not failure. It’s inevitable. Eat what you can keep down, and eat what gives you a little happiness while you’re enduring this hell, my fellow cancer havers.

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