05/29/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Cancer's Worse Than Yours!

Getty Images

People never cease to amaze... and sometimes, sadly, disappoint me.

Stage four cancer is the worst, right? I was diagnosed with stage four cancer at just 33 years young. Since I've never been married, have no children, and my professional career as a public speaker bringing a much-needed "dose of JOY" (literally, since my name is Joy, as well as figuratively) to newly diagnosed cancer patients, those currently in treatment, their support teams (including medical staff), and at survivor events has just taken off (see video of me speaking to survivors getting a standing ovation here.), my young adult life felt like it was truly just beginning when I received that absolutely devastating heart-breaking news.

I've never even thought to say to someone facing stage 1, stage 2, or stage 3 cancer, "My cancer's worse than yours!!" Gee, how rude, right?! The fact is, hearing, "YOU have cancer" is arguably one of the worst things a person could ever hear. I know someone who was pre-cancer, and they absolutely freaked out. We only need to look at the recent preventive double mastectomy Angelina Jolie underwent to know what simply hearing your chances of cancer have drastically gone up cause someone to do. Angelina wasn't even diagnosed with cancer.

Yet people have actually had the guts -- or complete insensitivity, I'm not totally sure which -- to say that my stage four cancer is not as bad as THEIR stage four cancer because mine was "only lymphoma." Wowww -- see the part at the start of this where I talk about how people sadly disappoint you!

Is my stage four lymphoma "worse" because it struck while I was just a young adult? Would it have been "better" had it happened when I was older, in my 60s, 70s, etc.? Somehow I doubt those diagnosed with stage four lymphoma in their 70s were happy at diagnosis. As I say when explaining "Cancer with JOY" to people, I say, "No one's happy they have cancer! (But you can have cancer and still be happy!" That's what "Cancer with JOY" is all about!)

I completely lost my shoulder-length hair and was bald while my friends in their 20s and 30s had no concept of how truly difficult that was. As a single lady, I was going on dates wearing a wig worried the wind would whip my hair right off my head and I'd have to chase it down. Embarrassing! Does that make my cancer "worse?"

The grandparent I was closest to who I spent the last 'normal' day of my life with before my diagnosis was confirmed (my maternal Grandpa) passed unexpectedly in a farming accident right before my third round of chemo. treatment. When we were scheduling the funeral we were considering my chemo, which they wouldn't move since it literally was a matter of life and death that I stick to the schedule. I had "chemo and a funeral" within 48 hours of each other; these were truly the very darkest days of my life I hope! Does that make my cancer "worse" than yours?

I recently shared an amazing story before Mother's Day of a mom who battled cancer while pregnant with her fifth child. She had stage two triple negative breast cancer. Since she received treatment while pregnant, does that make her stage two "worse" than other stage two's?? Was her stage two "worse" than my stage four since I wasn't pregnant while going through multiple surgical procedures, and 18 chemos? Really, who's to judge or decide this?

(Check out this amazing photo of her baby modeling, "You think you're tough! I went through chemo -- with my mommy!")


I think there's a tremendous take-away behind all of this; we've heard what the word assume broken up makes us. Thankfully our creator is the one who will judge us, and I think others should really try to refrain from judging as much as possible unless they've been in our exact shoes. Since it's impossible to know exactly what someone else is going through, others facing cancer, and those supporting them, shouldn't assume or judge.

I write more about this in my book Cancer with JOY in the chapters on "Cancer and Your Relationships" (especially pages 86-87, and 90) and the special chapter "For Caregivers" (page 111, 3rd paragraph).

Excerpted from page 90 of Cancer with JOY:

While virtually everyone made the comments, 'You don't look sick!' to me or I frequently heard, 'You look great!' (Thanks! I think? I wanted to be acknowledged for all that I was going through, and then told I looked great. Not told I looked great in a way that seemed to say in tone, 'Oh, you must not be going through too much. You look fine. You look normal.' Well, I am trying unbelievably hard to look normal. I did not want to look obviously sick and invite stares people seem to not be able to help!)

What's the most insensitive thing someone ever said to you while you were fighting cancer? The great thing about active blog posts is how they can be a real-time dialogue! What do you think when someone says to you, "You don't look sick!" Is it a compliment, or do you feel offended in a way?