I never wanted to be an advocate. I’m a conflict-adverse introvert by nature. When my youngest son was born with Down syndrome, the title of Advocate was foisted upon me. I was also suddenly a Special Needs Mom. These were clubs I never signed up for.
Thrown neck-deep into the health system with a baby with medical issues, I quickly learned to speak up at specialists’ offices to get my questions answered. I figured out that most advocacy work is relationship-based, which means if you have a relationship with the person you are directing your advocacy efforts towards, things will go much better.
To paraphrase Guy Kawasaki, a magnificent cause can overcome a prickly personality, but why make things harder? I got to know my son’s clinicians and recognized the value of chitchat, being nice, giving thank you cards and remembering people’s birthdays.
I’ve been to protests and marches to call for fair government funding for people with disabilities. I’ve spoken to the media about policies that segregate my kid. I lobbied a children’s hospital to start up a medical Down syndrome clinic and then fought hard when an administrator tried to shut it down a few years later. I have a fierce reputation as a strong advocate and I would take a bullet for any of my children.
Last year my advocacy efforts came to a screeching halt when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Many people said watch out cancer world, strong advocate Sue Robins is here – but all that bravado did not come to pass. I’ve often failed miserably at advocating for myself as a cancer patient. Newly diagnosed, I was meek, prickly and vulnerable. Intellectually, I knew what to do to speak up for myself in stark oncology clinics, but emotionally I sat as still as a little mouse, hunched over, compliant and broken.
It had been easier to advocate for my son. He was one step removed from me, and I could hide behind my role of the strong Mama Bear. Cancer is exceedingly personal and not one step removed at all, for my own cells have turned rogue on me. Breast cancer is an especially intimate sort of cancer – my breast tumour was an affront to my feminine body.
Sitting in exam rooms in thin gowns, exposing my breasts to strange hands and painful machines, I couldn’t figure out a way to salvage my dignity, never mind advocate for myself. I was stripped bare, as small as a little girl. Be brave and strong, they said. I was scared and weak instead.
People who knew me from the disability world told me to buck up, to advocate for myself as I had for my son. This call to action was not what I needed; it only served to pile guilt at my own helplessness on top of me. I simply craved compassion instead.
I slowly turned to writing to process my cancer patient experiences using both a personal journal and my blog. Even if I was unable to speak up during an appointment, I could write about it afterwards. On my blog, this caused me some trouble.
Cancer hospitals don’t like accounts of experiences, even anonymous ones, unless they are positive. Many of my own touches with health care were traumatic and a number of encounters were even unkind. I asked their patient engagement person if there was a way to share my photos I had taken during radiation and she told me they don’t ‘privilege’ one patient’s story over another. Then she added that the writing on my blog was raw. More injured, I left the public eye and turned inward.
This took funny turns – I signed up for a poetry workshop class and wrote about cancer in poetry. This was freeing – I could fictionalize my experiences and not be worried about being factual. A friend kindly showed me how to make a collage from my radiation photos that the cancer hospital wasn’t interested in. Art was a different way to speak up for myself. I was advocating, but coming at it sideways, not in a clinic room.
I poked my head back into published writing. A leader in radiation therapy asked me to co-author a journal article about my experience having radiation. A nursing professor asked me to write a guest editorial for her journal about suffering. I am hopeful my story leaves remnants for clinicians to pause to consider how patients feel when they are in their care. While this might not help me, this may help others behind me in the cancer world. Making meaning from my experience helps me heal too.
There are many ways to speak up for ourselves. Some people fundraise, lobby governments, give direct feedback to clinicians, and bring along support people to appointments to help given themselves a voice. Other folks just hang in there, endure and try to forget about the whole damn thing. That’s okay too.
Just as there’s not one right way to do cancer, there’s not one right way to advocate. The most important thing is to be kind and forgiving of yourself as you find your own way.
Sue Robins is a New York Times published writer and mother of three. Her youngest son has Down syndrome. Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2017. She has the unfortunate, but unique, perspective of being both a patient and caregiver in the health system. Her blog is: www.suerobins.com.
Sue’s paid work includes family centred care consulting with the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton and Toronto’s SickKids Hospital. She recently worked for Vancouver’s Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children as their Family Engagement Advisor. She is currently writing a book called The Bird’s Eye View, which is a manifesto for change in health care.