Cancer Super Achievers: An Unproductive Lament

The world of cancer is peppered with super achievers. For some people, a cancer diagnosis propels them into a flurry of mountain treks, book deals, year-long walkabouts, profitable blogs, the starting of foundations. They do cleansing diets, quit or change their jobs, marry or get divorced, adopt children, remodel their homes. The wind machines of productivity blow their long, flowing (metaphorical) hair into the photographer’s lens, and the world, it celebrates their proliferating efforts.

woman wearing gray shirt and black overalls on boat
I wish I had her hair. 

“You don’t have long to live,” cancer says. It is, to be sure, a wake up call.

Respect. And it’s no one’s business how we react to cancer or any disease. The music of coping has a wide, wide range.

And yet I can’t help feeling pressured, at times, to do. I realize this is partly cultural. Americans value productivity, work, achievement, productive leisure (think high-end tents, travel, what did you do this weekend?). Even cancer is no ticket out of this race. Even the cancer patient (and the chronically ill in general) must justify their rest, their healing, their not-productive-sitting-reading-resting being. We don’t honor enough that healing is an active, regenerative process in which the body’s reserves must be deeply tapped. This causes fatigue. It can cause grief. We don’t honor rest. We don’t honor the trauma that cancer heaps on the mind and the body, and the concentric circles it then echoes into family, friends, community.

In this vein, I want to say that I haven’t been terribly productive. This has its pluses, its minuses. Working outside the home is a way of staying engaged with the world, is a way of having another thread of meaning woven into your life. And I have been away from a job I love for nearly seven months.  Working inside the home is a series of tasks that are constantly being undone, and therefore there’s little to show for it.  And I haven’t written a book, haven’t remodeled a room. Kitchen cabinets remain in disarray. The wet mop is still outside, the linoleum has holes.

Not productive.

I ask myself: What should I be doing, exactly? Should I be sorting through the old books, cleaning the garage? Another Costco run? More vigorous meditation, reading professional manuals? Piles of poem and other drafts stack each household table, as do my husband’s paints, brushes, figures. I wander and sit. I read, then rest. I cook a little, grocery shop. Then rest some more. I spend 2-3 hours a day doing physical therapy exercises. “What do you do all day?” someone asked. Cue maniacal laughter.

Not productive.

I once scrolled past a Twitter post that read something like, “Click to see how breast cancer inspired this woman to climb Mt. Everest!” I replied, semi-snarkily, “Breast cancer made me cranky and tired.” Oh, the dark humor of it. But it was the truth.

And you know what?

It was the most productive thing I did that day.


How do you cope with your body’s need to heal? Its unpredictability, the need for rest?


6 thoughts on “Cancer Super Achievers: An Unproductive Lament”

  1. Yes! I needed this today. Thank you for your thoughtful words. My 10-hour/week job as a writing tutor has been just right for me. I’m out in the world, doing something that is meaningful and enjoyable for me, but I’m allowing for the rest, PT, and meditation that this diagnosis brought me 15 months ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paula! That sounds like a great balance. You are doing meaningful work but giving yourself time to recover, too. Hope you are well.


  2. Those of us with chronic diseases are forced to walk a totally different path than we ever expected. It can be particularly disorienting because society no longer gets to dictate its values or impose its expectations on us. It requires a lot of strength, because we have to break with the past to redefine our norms and how we live. It takes a lot of courage to become comfortable rejecting the “old” norms and social expectations. While every person gets to define what this means for themselves, it certainly makes sense to me that when one is sick, do whatever is necessary for yourself and your health regardless of social dictates – and not to feel the least bit guilty about it! I’m totally happy to let other people climb Mt. Everest, if that’s what they want to do but that certainly is not my path.


  3. During my initial treatment several years ago, I heard the phrase “You are a human BEING, not a human DOING”! I’ve tried to remember that as metastatic disease became evident recently.

    Some 20-30% of early stage cancers will recur and/or become advanced at some point. We don’t even have good data in the US because it’s not collected.

    A couple of new slogans, to replace the awareness mantras: Don’t ignore stage IV. Do more for Stage 4. No one dies of malignancy that remains in the breast. Once spread to distant sites, it’s more serious.


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