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The Stigma of Illness: Blaming the Patient

A Sick Stigma: Why Are Cancer Patients Blamed for Their Illness? is yet another article about cancer with a message that rings true for headache disorders. It examines the ways in which healthy people blame patients for illness, why they do so, and how patients internalize these messages and beat themselves up. The following paragraphs particularly spoke to me:

“Judgments about behavior not only unsettle and stigmatize the patient, but reflect the interrogator’s own insecurities. Frequently, those disease detectives are attempting to regain a sense of control amid the inherently random and sometimes unjust world that we all reside in, according to researchers who have studied stigma.”

“’I think that in one part there is a fundamental assumption in our society that the world is a just place, and that bad things don’t happen to good people,’ says Gerald Devins, a stigma researcher and senior scientist at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto. ‘And I think when bad things happen to good people, it’s threatening to everybody.'”

‘Secondly, you can say knowledge is power in a sense,’ Devins says. ‘If we feel like we understand something, it gives us the illusion of control.’”

These are similar to arguments I made in It’s Not About You on Migraine.com, with the bonus of being rooted in academic research, rather than personal experience. Illness — whether curable or chronic, life-threatening or not — scares people. Blaming the patient is a way to allay these fears and allows the currently healthy person to believe they have the power to avoid illness.

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Lessons on Living With Illness From a Young Woman With Cancer

Suleika Jaouad, a 23-year-old writer who was diagnosed with leukemia last year, has been sharing her experiences on Life, Interrupted, a New York Times blog. Though cancer is dramatically different from migraine, many of Jaouad’s candid, insightful reflections contain lessons that can be applied to any illness. Fighting Cancer, and Myself, is particularly poignant through the lens of chronic illness.

I’ve decided that the real battle I need to fight is against this win-lose mentality. During the past few months, I’ve been fighting myself in many ways, succumbing to fear and anger about not being able to do what I once could.

But today I’ve decided that my challenge will be to develop a new brand of acceptance. Cancer has taught me that you can’t fight your way out of every problem. The solution is not to charge full speed ahead. It’s counterintuitive, but I try to remind myself that chemotherapy, too, is illogical on its face; you are poisoned in order to be cured.

I realize now that the experience of having cancer is more of a tricky balancing act: being proactive about your medical condition, while simultaneously accepting and surrendering to the fact that, at least for the time being, you can’t change your reality as quickly as you’d like to.

Acceptance is not giving up — far from it. But like a prisoner in handcuffs, you only waste precious energy by trying to wriggle your way free. With cancer, the best way out may just be patience.

Like cancer, migraine is often framed as war. Constantly fighting a force within oneself can lead to animosity and self-hatred, as well as blaming oneself (trust me, I know). Without compassion for yourself, illness provokes a constant internal battle that is unwinnable. I fought it for years and am still trying to emerge from the rubble.