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What is hiding behind a cancer smile?

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.

I look daily at the smiling faces of cancer patients in my social media feeds. I wonder about the cancer stories behind their smile. The diagnosis, the treatment, the recovery, the trauma, the tears, the shock, the fear, the scars, the impact cancer had on their lives and their loved ones. I wonder how they managed their cancer journeys.

I think about my own smile, its big and round, my green eyes sparkle. I think about my cancer smile, its’ tense and rigid. My eyes are dull as they connect to what I am hiding. It’s the sort of smile I remember producing as a child when someone asked to take my photo and I really, really, really didn’t them want to but felt obliged to produce a beaming photogenic smile.

My cancer smile has been produced on numerous occasions like a well worn but slightly jaded sweater. My cancer smile has raised money. My cancer smile has been me trying to get on with my life. My cancer smile conveys to the world all is well. My I’m ok smile. My let’s not talk about cancer smile. My leave me alone smile. My cancer mask.

My cancer smile isn’t always genuine. My cancer smile always doesn’t match my internal emotions. My internal emotions are often fear. Fear cancer will erupt again in an unknown location at an inconvenient time. There is often sadness and anger lurking behind my cancer smile.

My cancer smile has served me well. My cancer smile holds back the world of distress of what I have been through. My cancer smile protects myself and the people I love from the loss and the pain, the hideous treatment and scary statistics. The tests I have cried in, the appointments I have been a bitch in. My cancer smile holds back anger at insensitive comments. My cancer smile stops me crying when I’m worried or scared.

These emotions are uncomfortable to carry around with me. I don’t want them. They are discharged through my behaviour. The rhythm of my daily exercise session. My bucket list. My fck you to cancer when I achieve a goal I thought cancer may take from me. My behaviour is a way of feeling empowered when so much of cancer is out of my control and the future unknown.

These emotions are also soothed by the things I love. They are soothed by nature, by cloudless pinky sunsets and the sound of powerful foamy waves crashing on shores. They are soothed by being able to be Poppy and Bonnie’s mum for one more day. They are soothed by laughing with my friends. They are also soothed by hope when another treatment is announced.

I’m less willing or indeed able to wear my cancer smile now. It’s fake and false and quite exhausting. I now give a brief cancer update if asked expressing myself concisely and change the subject rapidly. A 10 second whirlwind of words and we are talking about weekend plans and my smile is genuine once more.

A cancer smile is important because it allows us to function in our lives. It is also important to recognise and express the emotions behind the cancer smile because they can cause distress if we don’t. These emotions may need revisiting on a regular basis. Managing these emotions with our behaviour can take many forms and will be different for us all. For some it will be talking in therapy, for others running a marathon, creating art, writing or going on a holiday. I hope the smiles from this behaviour will look and feel different from your cancer smile.

Do you have a cancer smile? How is your cancer smile different from your other smile? What are you hiding behind it? Are you protecting anyone? How do you manage the emotions behind your smile?



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