Failure is a Relative Term

Laura Zigman Health Guide
  • My post the other day about how it seems women can't win when it comes to deciding on a treatment plan - that we're essentially "failing" at this very early stage of our unplanned journey through Cancerland because we either pick surgery that is overkill (mastectomies over lumpectomies) or underkill (lumpectomies over mastectomies) - reminded me of the book I was working on up until recently. The book was about failure - the upside of failure, that is - but unfortunately my publisher didn't want to publish it, which means I essentially failed at failure. This would be really funny if it weren't actually true, and I suppose it's still pretty funny even though it is true.
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    Or maybe it's funny (to me, anyway) because it's true - because there is something ridiculous about the notion of failure and of how we define it. By which I mean "succeeding at failure" is way too easy.

    Failure, of course, is relative. So is success. Failure is also subjective. So is success. Whether we consider ourselves to be successes or failures depends almost entirely on how we define those terms. Or how we allow others to define those terms for us. One easy way to stop feeling like a failure and start feeling like a success is to change your definitions. For instance, the minute I start feeling like a huge gigantic loser because my book on failure failed, I try to think about how I managed to get 4 other books published. And a whole bunch of articles. And how I now get to be a blogger here along with PJ and Marisa and Natalia and all the other expert patients and other patients who share their stories on this site. And all the other really great things I get to do each and every day because I was lucky enough to have such a relatively minor case of breast cancer. By changing my definition of failure - I am not a failure just because my book on failure failed! - my definition of success changes, too: I'm a success even though my book on failure failed!

    It seems that with cancer there exists a particularly virulent strain of the Blame the Victim virus. No matter what kind of cancer you have, the first thing people try to figure out is whether or not it was your fault: if you ate red meat, drank red wine, took the pill, didn't take vitamins. Then they try to second guess why it took you so long to find it. Next, it's time to blame you for not becoming an expert in cancer so that you can understand and find and research every single treatment available in the world which might pertain to your exact type of cancer. The fact that most cancer experts are doctors who go to medical school for years and years doesn't seem to make any difference: the patient who doesn't become an expert in their own cancer is somehow failing at curing themselves.

    I'm going to write more about these various ways we "fail at cancer" in future posts -- the ultimate one being if you "fail at treatment" (which is what they actually call it)(as if it's actually your fault) -- but I'll leave you with this perfect example of the no-win situation we're in.

  • Long before we're diagnosed and treated, there's the whole issue of worrying about our risk of getting breast cancer. Apparently, there's actually research on this topic because I found out there's a study that shows that some women overestimate their risk of getting breast cancer, even after they've been told by doctors that statistics make them less at risk than they think. While it isn't clear what causes this "resistance to good news," the researchers found that pessimism and "differences in understanding percentages" (presumably, being bad in math) -- had nothing to do with it.
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    That is, those of us who are overly concerned about our risk of getting breast cancer are "failing" to be optimistic.

    Yet just as being overly negative is unacceptable and seen as a failure, women who underestimate or ignore their high-risk status by not going for regular diagnostic mammograms or genetic tests are even worse off -- because they're seen as being in denial about their chances for having breast cancer and are thus "failing" at having a healthy amount of fear and pessimism.

    A close friend of mine who writes a national advice column which dispenses, among other things, health and medical advice to millions of readers, had her first mammogram last spring at the age of 48 despite her strong family history of breast cancer, and was pilloried by all of her friends for being so inexplicably remiss. By the time she was in the waiting room with her Johnny on, waiting for her results, she was convinced of two things: 1) that she was a complete idiot for having waited so long to get a baseline mammogram and 2) that if the mammogram led to cancer being found, no one would have any sympathy for her.

    A no-win situation if I've ever seen one. Which means failure is inevitable. Unless of course we change the terms and see that every time we have a diagnostic breast exam, every time we stare down a breast cancer diagnosis and figure out a plan of action and make decisions about our treatment and go through the process of getting better we are succeeding 100% at surviving and failing 0%. 
Published On: February 08, 2008