“Sibling” Rivalry Amongst Cancer Survivors

Working with cancer survivors, I have noticed a trend in which we support each other as peers, but sometimes hurt and isolate each other. Cancer survivors may feel a sense of commonality and connection to each other that they may not find with the general population — validation, a sense of physical vulnerability. This sense of comradery is crucial for guidance, role modeling, fitting in, and feeling hope that others made it through and survived, and hopefully, thrived. 

However, at the same time, a cancer survivor may desire recognition, approval, or praise. They may seek to stand out by comparing themselves in terms of cancer types, stages, or intensity of and types of cancer therapies. Inherent to this pursuit is often unconscious competition. (My cancer was worse. My therapies were worse or lasted longer or had more post-treatment effects. I had less support or finances.) This competition amongst cancer survivors may lead to hurt one or both parties and is very similar to a kind of sibling rivalry. The perpetrator may do this to redefine their identity, stand out, get attention and support, or be recognized for their unique victory. The victim may feel bullied and isolated, but should not take it personally. 

However, at the end of the day it’s important to accept the reality that none of our journeys are lighter or heavier, they are just different. Smaller tumors may require intense therapies when their behavior is aggressive. Simpler treatment regimens can still cause a great deal of bodily damage depending on their location and the patient’s ability to tolerate them. We all try to go about our travels the best we can. 

Comparing and hearing others’ stories can help but also hurt. When you tell your stories, please think about why you are sharing — to scare the other person by showing off your hardships or to help the other person by providing support, insight, and (realistic) hope. And if someone tells you a story that makes you feel upset, you should feel comfortable letting that person know in a calm and respectful manner. If communication does not help end this unhealthy dynamic, you may want to ask a neutral third party to intercede. If you still find yourself at odds, a (hopefully temporary) distancing may be needed. In tough times, it’s crucial to remember that all cancer survivors may have been scarred emotionally and try to focus on what keeps us united rather than divided. 

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  1. Rivalry can exist not only between/ among survivors, but also between/ among caregivers. Fortunately, most caregivers, when interacting with other caregivers, are very supportive of each other. They listen. They empathize. They respect each caregiver’s situation, which contains some elements common to many care-giving situations and some elements unique to an individual caregiver’s situation.

    Most, but not all. Unfortunately, a few caregivers worry too much about making sure everyone knows how much they are doing for their loved one. They want to shine; they want to show off. They crave recognition.
    This is not the same as loving caregivers who share the details of their situation in the hopes that the validation available from other caregivers will help sustain them in their difficult caregiving journey.

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