Be Positive? I'd Rather Complain with My Friends.

Be Positive? I'd Rather Complain with My Friends.


Annaliese Griffin

3 days ago at 3:36 PM

Yes, I have cancer. Why is it that everyone is telling me to "be positive" after my diagnosis? I'd rather sit around and complain with my friends.

One of the things that has been the most difficult for me to navigate since being diagnosed with cancer is whom to tell and how. It’s not that I’m particularly private; it’s just that I don’t want my illness to become the focal point of any relationship. Even with my oncologist I crack jokes and talk about my kids and what I’m writing as much as I ask him about nausea relief.

I don’t want to be the poor cancer mom. I want to be what I am — a writer who forgets to watch her language in front of the kids, hosts great summer barbecues and can be depended on to bring sparkling conversation and a delicious bottle of wine to dinner.

And when I do talk about cancer, and the rugged course of chemotherapy I’m going through? Then I want my complaints to be met with a story about how annoying your boss’s emails are lately, or how even the hint of a runny nose keeps your kid home from school, or that you tried on 10 pairs of pants in the same size and half were too big, and half too small. I want commiseration and closeness — and complaining with me is key to that.

Mutual complaints are believed by some experts to be good for bonding. It’s a deeply empathetic and underappreciated form of connection, one that helps me normalize what’s happening to me, and also process it in a way that allows the person I’m complaining with to see me and not just my diagnosis. I love listening to my sister go on about the ultracompetitive parents she deals with when coaching elementary school soccer. A friend who has always been passionate about work is suddenly dreading every task; I love digging into that with her.

For me, the ritual of verbally processing what’s bringing me down with another human, and receiving a story that I can commiserate with, rather than pity, makes me feel like I dwell in the land of the living — a constant challenge right now.

My cancer, adrenal, is very rare and stealthy. Even though there was no evidence on my pre-surgery scans that it had metastasized, and no indication that the cantaloupe-size tumor my surgeon removed had invaded any other organs, there could be rogue cells nestled in far-off corners of my body, quietly multiplying. Even with chemo, which has taken my hair, my appetite and my energy, there are no guarantees that in a year or two it won’t return. Meanwhile, I live in an in-between place where weirdly, other than the nausea and fatigue from chemo, physically, I feel pretty damn good. I don’t feel like a sick person. But I won’t truly get to call myself well for another four and a half white-knuckled years — I hope.

Because I’ll be living in limbo for so long, defining a new normal for myself has been key to staving off anxiety. Part of that is sharing my quotidian gripes. One day I might be irate over my husband’s insistence on putting celery in vegetable stock. Another day I might complain about how frustrating it is having a cancer that is so rare that there just aren’t good numbers on rates of recurrence. Placing these complaints on the same level takes away some of the power that cancer holds over my life. So does hearing yours in return.

Complaining is sometimes dismissed as whining or bellyaching — an undignified and unnecessary display of feeling that would be better left unarticulated. But Kathyrn Norlock, a professor of philosophy at Trent University who has written about the ethics of complaint, argues that mutual complaint can fall under the umbrella of “affective duty,” which she describes as “expressing that we’re both emotional beings together.” It’s a kind of emotional heavy lifting that I think of as “showing up.”

“There are times when your duty is to show people feeling,” she told me. “It says, you know, I feel some sort of grief or pain or sorrow or compassion. I feel some sort of fellow feeling with you.”

One thing that terrifies me about cancer is the idea that friends will stop being emotional with me and instead make my misfortune the center of everything we talk about. To keep moving forward I want to know, and share, what’s making you happy, yes, but also what’s annoying you. “You have to empower the other person in any relationship to be as much of themselves as they can be,” Dr. Norlock said. It turns out that griping — and hearing the gripes of others — is a central part of me feeling like me.

We all struggle. Even those of us working through particularly difficult moments in our lives have the capacity to empathize with others, and for me at least, empathizing feels good. Throughout the pandemic, and now as we watch the horrors of the war in Ukraine, it’s easy to feel that unless our circumstances are the worst, we’re undeserving of any compassion at all.

This is just wrong. For one, it makes us less likely to ask for the help we need, and two, it creates a power dynamic in which the person who is struggling is somehow beholden to the listener, rather than acknowledging that we all move through tough times and the person bringing my family a casserole while I’m at chemo today, may someday in a few months, or a few years, need a meal, or child care, or a ride while she grieves the loss of a parent or grapples with a chronic illness.

We are not competing in the suffering Olympics. We live in an unjust world. I often feel unworthy of complaint as I head to chemo at a dedicated cancer center in my car that’s paid off, my stupidly expensive cellphone pinging with well wishes from friends and neighbors letting me know that they will be bringing enchiladas over later. Being sick is incredibly resource-intensive, and I’m well aware that I have more than many people. But recognizing that others have it worse doesn’t change the fact of my own suffering — which is real.

My daily life is spent balancing the practical with the existential; as I piece together a summer of camps and activities for my children, there’s a subnarrative in the back of my head wondering how they will remember me if I die, and what I can do to prepare them for that. The light and the heavy are inextricably bound together, and this is really always the case. Close to 40 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, and we’re all going to die of something. The reality of that is just closer to the surface for me right now.

When you have cancer, you hear a lot about the importance of a positive outlook, and to a certain extent that’s true. But looking on the bright side can start to feel like a script I’m performing rather than an actual communication of what I’m feeling. When I’m complaining about how annoying it is to have to constantly vacuum up my own hair, as if some kind of giant cat lives in my house, and I’m met with a sympathetic ear and fellow feeling in the form of a gripe, that feels honest. I feel like myself, not the sad cancer mom who can think only about her mortality.

The truth is that I’m both of those things. I’m aggressively optimistic, out here living my life, making vacation plans, reading bedtime stories and working. I’m also scared a lot. And it helps me to know that one of my worst fears — becoming someone deemed worthy only of sympathy rather than a fully reciprocal friendship of shared triumphs and disappointments — hasn’t come true.


Last activity by Amy Zhong

Paige Davis

I feel the same way too. It has been so frustrating for me that everyone seems to want me to just be positive after my diagnosis. I don't think that's the right reaction! This is awful!! You try being positive when you've just been told the likely cause of your death.

Tara Van G

Love the candor of this article, thank you! I needed this

Amanda Pool

WIth as many of this suffering from cancer as there are - the article says that 40% of people will get cancer in their lifetime - why is it so hard for people to accept that it's OK to have real emotions about this?? Who are we being strong for if not ourselves by honoring our authentic feelings

Rose Wilson

HA! I feel the exact same way, LOVE your true authenticity Annalise!!! Thanks for posting, glad I'm not the only one who thinks like this!

Amy Zhong

Awesome article!! Everything about this article is so true!


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