Having cancer has helped me understand why a lot of people stay "in the closet" about suffering with the illness.
I've learned that friends, relatives and even strangers treat people with cancer differently. A famous instance is Hugo Chavez revealing that he went to Cuba to have a cancerous tumor removed last month.
Chavez is president of oil-rich Venezuela. He has strived to anchor socialism in that nation and rid Latin America of the United States' meddling. But the pelvic area surgery to fight his cancer throws into doubt his strongman status and whether he can stay in power.
It shows how having cancer carries a huge stigma and labels a person less than capable, less than whole. Until I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I had been a bystander in how people with an illness are treated differently.
I had learned about such diversity issues from people like Jerry Armstrong and Sybil Noble with the Ark of Friends, an advocacy group for people with mental illness. Also raising my awareness to the stigma were Mark Ohrenberg, then with the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute for Human Development, and Paul H. Levy, coordinator of Independent Living Services and founder of Whole Person Inc.
They said disparate treatment of people with physical or mental disabilities kept them from getting jobs, living in better communities, getting benefits such as insurance and being able to do what they wanted independently.
People always treated them as if they were broken or incapable. Levy, who died last year, used to telephone and send letters to the news media on the importance of word use about people with disabilities. He was right to do that.
Too often we used such words as handicapped, which stigmatizes people. Levy insisted on putting "people first" so stories referred to "the person using the wheelchair."
Having cancer has enabled me to see how the word "cancer" also triggers others' off-putting reactions. Some examples are:
Anything less causes people with cancer or disabilities to shrink back or stay in the closet. Instead of revealing how they are overcoming adversity, some may refuse to even seek treatment, fearing the reaction.
That's not good for people with disabilities, and it certainly works against individuals who might have cancer. It's when people with cancer come out that there's hope for healing. They have to get the right treatment and then minus the stigma be embraced by others' kindness, care and enabling support that the people with cancer deem appropriate.
We have to let them know that they are as valued as family members, friends, co-workers and people in the community as they've always been.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star's Editorial Board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.