I had to out myself as a cancer survivor at work this week due to a spate of appointments coming up. The response from my supervisor was, “Congratulations!”
People are congratulated when they become engaged, pregnant, married, or parents. It’s a happy word for happy life events.
Do we congratulate people who survive a car crash, a heart attack, or a stroke? No, we don’t. Because it’s not appropriate. It doesn’t make sense.
So why, then, is this considered an appropriate response to surviving cancer? Because surviving cancer seems like an achievement, like earning a college degree or buying a house?
Most people don’t know what to say about difficult or just plain shitty life events. There are entire books about what to say when someone dies under different types of circumstances. None of them ever advise the reader to say “Congratulations!”
Let’s try a thought experiment. What are the unspoken words after that initial congratulatory utterance?
“Congratulations for your life getting back to normal!”
“Congratulations you didn’t die!”
“Congratulations it’s over!”
“Congratulations you won the battle!”
Since the uninitiated are so in love with “the battle” metaphor, this may well be what comes to mind in those who think this is a congratulatory occasion.
Yes, we get to go on when so many others do not. I like to think my entire collection of writing about cancer communicates that “living on” is a given and what remains unacknowledged and often unspoken (because just being alive is supposed to be reason enough to be happy) is how difficult living on is.
I heard that “Congratulations!” as a cascade of negatives:
“Congratulations! Your medical care is permanently intense overkill!
“Congratulations! You must have health insurance forever!”
“Congratulations! You are going through early menopause!”
“Congratulations! You are a damaged and traumatized person!”
Now, I didn’t say anything of this sort to my supervisor. He was very uncomfortable and quickly changed the subject. Quite honestly, I relished the moment. This is a man who once asked me if I had ever heard of PubMed and has continuously talked to me in a condescending manner. Now he will not make eye contact with me or speak to me. Good. GOOD. I know that despite everything, on a professional level, what I have been able to accomplish in light of that piece of information is quite extraordinary. Perhaps now he really knows who he is working with.