#136 The Sick Role...What it is and How to Get Out of it

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Getting a diagnosis of breast cancer is difficult and traumatizing on its own.

Then, when you realize that the management of this disease goes on for years, it can result in frustrations and tons of resistance…even toward therapies that can save your life.

I got to wondering why that is.

Why do we place demands on our body to heal and perform before it’s ready?

 And do we choose to look at ourselves as sick rather than working on our healing and wellness?

In this show, I talk about the social construct of “The Sick Role” and what it means to us as survivors as well as how we can overcome that perception.

Referred to in the podcast:

Join the Revived Membership Experience

Why Do We Say "I'm Not Sick" When We're Really Sick?

The Sick Role

 Read Full Transcript Below:

Laura Lummer  0:00 

This is Laura Lummer, the breast cancer recovery coach. I'm a healthy lifestyle coach, a clinical Ayurveda specialist, a personal trainer, and I'm also a breast cancer survivor. In this podcast, we talk about healthy thinking and mindfulness practices, eating well, moving your body for health and longevity. And we'll also hear from other breast cancer survivors who have reengaged with life and have incredible stories to share. This podcast is your go-to resource for getting back to life after breast cancer.


Laura Lummer  0:37 

Hello, Hello, friends. Welcome to Episode 136 of the breast cancer recovery coach Podcast. I am your host, Laura Lummer. Thank you so much for being here today for joining me. And thank you for the reviews that have been coming in for the show. I know I say this all the time.


Laura Lummer  0:55 

But it truly does mean everything to a podcast and your support by leaving ratings and reviews are invaluable. So, you know, a few new ones come in this week. And I'm super grateful for those. And I just want to say thank you for taking the time to leave a few stars, hopefully, five stars for the podcast. But thanks for your feedback. I appreciate it. And it's great for the show.


Laura Lummer  1:20 

And don't forget to subscribe so that you never have to miss an episode.


Laura Lummer  1:24 

All right, I have a very special announcement to make. And then I'm going to jump right into the show.


Laura Lummer  1:31 

So, of the revived membership experience, which is my monthly membership experience that is coaching that is looking at different themes for our life and the way that we think and the way that we manage our thoughts. It's amazing. We're doing such great work in there.


Laura Lummer  1:49 

And I was going to close the membership as of the day this podcast comes out April 30. And then I realized, you know, people are really busy during the week, let me extend through the weekend.


Laura Lummer  1:59 

So, there are a couple more days left. If you want to jump in and join the revived membership experience, I will leave enrollment open until May 2 Sunday, May 2 at midnight Pacific Standard Time.


Laura Lummer  2:13 

And you will love Love, love the lessons in May because we are going to be focusing on self-compassion in May. And understanding how you treat yourself what you say to yourself, how you can be gentler with yourself. And an incredibly special bonus next month also is a self-compassion breathwork workshop with my friend and colleague and the amazing breathwork, pause breathwork practitioner. Her name is Tanya Saunders in so she will be conducting a workshop for all of the members of revived and I'm super, super excited about that.


Laura Lummer  2:54 

So, if you've been thinking about joining, if you think that coaching will help you and I know coaching will help you because it helps everyone working on yourself your thoughts, managing your minds and all your minds, managing your mind. And all of the most sometimes it feels like minds, though, doesn't it? You're like arguing with yourself, you have different thoughts coming up here and then you're telling yourself No, don't think that so I shouldn't have corrected myself, we'll go with minds.


Laura Lummer  3:20 

When you want to manage those minds. It can be so important to have help and support and direction. And I know the value that the revived membership brings to the table. And so, to the women who have been in only for one month, there's only one month old, it's a baby. And so, I'm going to close the doors for a little while because I just want to make sure and really focus a lot of energy and love and attention on the members who are my founding members who did join early and make sure that they get everything that they need. So, if you'd like to be a part of that, please go to thebreastcancerrecoverycoach.com/revived or just go to thebreastcancerrecoverycoach.com and on my homepage, you can scroll down, and you'll see join revived.


Laura Lummer  4:04 

You will be so happy that you did it.


Laura Lummer  4:07 

Alright, so I want to start off this show with a little story. The other night I was driving with one of my friends to go to dinner with the girls we do girls' night, once a month on Wednesday nights there's this awesome little Italian restaurant right by my house and you can get bottles of Justin cab for half off with your entree. So, we love going there and decided to be Wednesday wine night for the girls.


Laura Lummer  4:31 

So, I'm driving over there with my friend. And in the last couple of weeks, I've been having a lot of lymphedema in my right arm and if you have lymphedema, you know what that entails if you've never had lymphedema, you know it's an interesting thing because once we've had lymph nodes removed, we are always at risk for having lymphedema. And so here I am, this is 2021. I had my surgery where my lymph nodes were removed back in August of 2011, and suddenly I have lymphedema.


Laura Lummer  5:03 

So go figure.


Laura Lummer  5:04 

But anyway, so I'm doing things to manage it. But still, my hand looks a little bit like one of those surgical gloves that you take, and you just blow it up and draw a face on it, you know, so I have that water balloon hand thing going on. And you can't help but see it. And so, my friend is driving with me, we pull up to the restaurant, and she's like, what is going on with your hand? And I explained to her what it is. And she says, how much more are you going to have to go through? When is this ever going to end?


Laura Lummer  5:30 

Now, of course, she asked me that out of nothing but love and empathy and concern for me. But I just found it interesting because, you know, no one who hasn't had breast cancer realizes that there's long-term management that comes with cancer treatment, following cancer treatment, or living with the disease. And I think part of the problem for us as survivors is that we didn't know that either. No one tells us that healing from cancer is going to require long-term management.


Laura Lummer  6:05 

Whether that is hormone therapy, like aromatase inhibitors, or tamoxifen, whether that is the ongoing slew of scans, and blood work, and the emotions that we go through the management of emotions, the management of fear, the management of lifestyle, and the decisions you have to make with lifestyle, so that you feel comfortable believing that you're supporting your body as well as you can to lower your risk of recurrence, right.


Laura Lummer  6:38 

All this is long-term management.


Laura Lummer  6:40 

So, I started thinking about this, and I thought, you know, it's really interesting, because we have this fight to go back to normal. I've talked about it a million times. It's frustrating when we don't go back to normal. But there's something else like there's this larger social construct underlying this frustration, I think that comes with life after breast cancer.


Laura Lummer  7:05 

So, I started doing a little bit of research on this, I started reading some articles. And I thought, you know, there's something and I'll know it when I see it. I'll know it when I find it. And I think that it's this underlying construct that I was searching for, that makes something else so exceedingly difficult in the management of recovering from breast cancer. And that is taking medications, taking long-term medications for five years... for 10 years....


Laura Lummer  7:35 

And now new studies coming out that are saying things like Zometa would be very beneficial for breast cancer survivors because it can help make a less friendly environment inside your bones for breast cancer. So maybe some of you get Zometa infusions as part of your ongoing management. And sometimes that can be really hard to stomach, we get frustrated, we don't want to do it. You know, I said to my husband, the other night, I had a Zometa treatment, and I said, I just don't want to do this, you know, I don't want these things to be a part of my life.


Laura Lummer  8:10 

And it's okay, you know, we cannot want things to be a part of our life and still find joy in our lives, both are acceptable. It's not like I'm going to sit here and say, Oh, yay, I get to take more chemotherapy and more hormone treatments and Zometa treatments.


Laura Lummer  8:26 

But I can choose to look at them differently, and that will help with recovery. And so, I think I was looking for this foundational idea that would help me to get this idea across in the podcast, and I found it.


Laura Lummer  8:42 

Yeah, I found it and I'm going to share it with you right now.


Laura Lummer  8:46 

So, what I found was something that's called the sick role. It was popularized by Talcott Parsons in 1951. And I'm going to quote this excerpt or summary of the sick role that I found in an article in Scientific American.


Laura Lummer  9:04 

So, what is this about the sick role is the basic condition for the temporary exemption for the sick individual from his or her task and role obligations is rooted in the recognition that being sick is an undesirable state of affairs. And because it is so undesirable, the sick individual is obligated to try to get well. To get well the second dividual must cooperate with others because recovery is not possible through his or her efforts alone. Thus, while the sick person has the opportunity to enjoy the temporary but legitimate exemption from the normal tasks, and role obligations, he or she has the new obligation of trying to get well as soon as possible.


Laura Lummer  9:54 



Laura Lummer  9:55 

**drop the mic, End of quote.


Laura Lummer  9:57 

I read that and I thought, oh, this is gold right here. Because this sick role is part of the tremendous and long-term frustration we go through as cancer survivors, or as people living with cancer. Because this is the key phrase, in my opinion, we have the new obligation of trying to get well, as soon as possible, right?


Laura Lummer  10:26 

So, there's this social mentality, you're sick. And as we all know, if you are going through radiation, or if you are going through chemotherapy, radiation, it may not be so obvious on the outside, but there's a lot of fatigue and things like that, that go on.


Laura Lummer  10:42 

Surgery, people can see that you're sick, right?


Laura Lummer  10:44  

So, you get the hall pass chemotherapy, your bald hands down, people are going to recognize you're sick, they're going to see you as sick.


Laura Lummer  10:53 

Then we get done with that treatment. And because of the sick role, because of this social mentality, we, and everyone around us is like, Okay, well, let's get well as soon as possible. And getting well doesn't involve taking medication for the next 10 years, right. Getting well doesn't involve see you back at the oncology office in three months, in six months, in a year. And next year, and next year, getting well doesn't involve being 45 years old, 55 years old, 65 years old, and getting up and down out of the off of the sofa, like a 95-year-old because your bones are so stiff from whatever treatments or medications you're taking, right.


Laura Lummer  11:36 

So, we still perceive ourselves as this sick person. And it's so frustrating. And we don't want to be seen like the sick person. So especially when it comes to taking medications. And this is something that's been I've really been focusing on lately because I've coached several women. Well, I've coached a lot of women over the last few years. But I would say especially more recently that I've been coaching them on the resistance and the negative emotions around taking medications that their oncologist is recommending to them like aromatase inhibitors.


Laura Lummer  12:16 

Now, I want to clarify, you are under no obligation to take medication, right, you get to make your own decisions. And I'm not saying this from the role of a clinician or medical practitioner, I'm saying it for means of the podcast, I'm not doing this podcast to make you take medicine that you're not comfortable with, you get to make that choice, you, and your doctors, you talk about it, you make that choice.


Laura Lummer  12:37 

But for those who do decide to take medication, part of this mentality of it's going to make me sick, or I'm not going to feel good, or I'm still going to appear like the sick person can be so traumatic, you know, it just adds to the trauma we've all already been through.


Laura Lummer  13:02 

And there, there are other things as well, right?


Laura Lummer  13:04 

There are reconstructive issues.


Laura Lummer  13:06 

I remember thinking I was done with my surgery and my loved implant fell out, I had to go back and get another surgery, right.


Laura Lummer  13:12 

And there can be so many other issues around it, there can be infections, there can be asymmetry, there can be things just didn't take, right. And we keep having to go back. And every time we do, we go back into the sick role. And we tell ourselves ahead of time, this thing is coming up. This is how long I'm going to allow it to affect my life, or we struggle with how long this is going to go on. And so, I think that this concept of the sick role, and the fact that the sick role includes Okay, you're allowed to be sick, we're going to take care of you while you're sick, but you need to participate in getting better. And then you need to get better as soon as you can, is a major player in Us beating ourselves up as breast cancer survivors.


Laura Lummer  13:59 

So today, I want to offer a different perspective, to help you move out of the sick role. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself and see yourself in a much better light. So that if you are struggling with treatments, if you are struggling with side effects from treatments, that you don't have to look at yourself as the sick person, as the sick person that's under this obligation to get held by up from others and to get better as soon as possible, but first of all this sick roll. It's completely made up. Right.


Laura Lummer  14:41 

It's based on somebody's thought. It's based on somebody's observations and thoughts and then we all buy into it. Let's see I said it was happening back in 1951. And we've all been buying into it ever since then and believing this is the way that sick is supposed to work.


Laura Lummer  14:57 

But it doesn't necessarily work like that, and you don't have to buy into it.


Laura Lummer  15:04 

Now, I don't mean, okay, just be sick forever and let everybody else pick up the slack around you. That's not at all what I'm talking about. But what I'm talking about is today, in this day and age, we live a lot longer with diseases that would have taken other people's lives, just, gosh, 20 years ago, right? 10 years ago, something 20, 10, 30 years ago, whatever that might be.


Laura Lummer  15:29 

And so, because of that, there's a requirement for us to manage our bodies to manage ourselves a little bit differently. So, if you were to see somebody who had a visible sign of a long term illness that they were managing, let's say it was Parkinson's disease, or ALS, or MS, or something that we can see rheumatoid arthritis, something of that nature, then you know, you have empathy for them. And you see that, and you realize, and you understand if they're managing their illness if they have to take medications for it or rest at certain times. And you don't question that you say, Okay, yeah, this person has to manage this, it's important so that they can participate and enjoy life as much as possible.


Laura Lummer  16:10 

Now, with cancer and cancer recovery, a lot of times, you can't see that. So, because on the outside, we can still look very healthy and very glowing. I mean, I know that for me, if somebody saw me today, they would not in a million years think that I had stage four cancer or that I'm healing from stage four cancer. But the fact is that I am and that I do have to manage myself and manage my body and manage my energy as a result of that.


Laura Lummer  16:35 

So, I offer that because I just want you to remember that a thought is just it's made up, it's imaginary, you don't have to buy into it, you can change that thought. You don't have to look at yourself as the sick person and say, I have to be well, as soon as possible, is perfectly okay to give yourself some grace. And just say, wow, I've been through a lot. What am I going to need to do now to support my healing, and manage my energy and my body as well as I possibly can to reduce my chances of ever having to go through that again? Right. So, it doesn't have to be okay, you had enough time. Now you have to be completely different. You took the time you needed to save your life. And now you can take the time, you need to continue to save your life and live as well and as happy as possible.


Laura Lummer  17:32 



Laura Lummer  17:33 

Now, the second thing is this thing with medicine and this frustration and anger and resistance and bitterness towards taking medications.


Laura Lummer  17:42 

Now, I don't totally get that because I'm sure I've shared it in the show somewhere along the line. You know, before I got cancer, I would I took aspirin right when I needed to, especially because I used to get migraine headaches. But for the most part, you know, I wanted to manage my health naturally, with food with exercise with a healthy lifestyle. That was a big focus for me.


Laura Lummer  18:03 

And so, taking medications, what does that remind us of? It reminds us of this dang sick roll.


Laura Lummer  18:11 

Who takes medicine, my grandma why she was sick?


Laura Lummer  18:14 



Laura Lummer  18:15 

So, we identify this medication with sickness into its frustrating. And then we know that many medications that help us to manage our health come with side effects. And then once again, what is the side effect do puts you back in the sick role, if that's the way you choose to think about it.


Laura Lummer  18:34 

But what if you decided instead to look at medication as a support to your healing and wellness?


Laura Lummer  18:42 

So, I'll share the story with you which I thought is a great story. One of my members had shared with me that when she would watch TV and she'd see Ibrance commercials come on. And Ibrance is a form of oral chemotherapy for women with metastatic cancer. I take Ibrance. So, she shared with me that when she would see these commercials, she would get triggered because, you know, she said there's the whole I hate cancer, I hate medicine, you know all of those things that you have to work through. And so, she went into her oncologist or her physician one time and told her shared with her how much she hated that medicine, and the physician in response said, Well, that's really too bad because I wish you had a more positive outlook on it and saves so many women's lives. It's really a wonderful medication.


Laura Lummer  19:27 

And I love that shift in perspective.


Laura Lummer  19:31 

Because I think it's so important once again for us to realize we get to choose how we want to think about it. The medicine is just the medicine. The medicine comes with nothing. It's not emotional. It's just a thing. There's medicine and it's there. And you get to choose Are you going to think about it as something that continues to help you be well and survive and live and supports your healing along with all of the things that you already do to maintain a healthy life, right?


Laura Lummer  20:02 

I'm not saying just be dependent on medicine and hope medicine fixes everything. But do everything, take the action lead a healthy lifestyle, and then know that this is a part of your healing as well.


Laura Lummer  20:14 

Now, will this stop every side effect that could potentially come? will it stop having future surgeries? Or scans or recurrences or anything painful joints?


Laura Lummer  20:24 

No, of course not, maybe. But it might sure help.


Laura Lummer  20:28 

When we take something in with that powerful positive energy, when we look at ourselves as a person who is healing and managing wellness, rather than trying to run from disease, right? We're managing wellness, we're staying well, and we're using everything within our means to support us that we can while thinking in the most constructive way possible, that's a game-changer. It truly, truly is, it is a game-changer, it takes you out of that sick roll, and into the role of a person who is empowered to manage their health. And you can let go of any expectation beyond that any expectation from someone outside of you.


Laura Lummer  21:14 

And when we start to shift that mentality, when we as survivors, we start to shift the way together as a community, that we handle this recovery, that we manage our bodies and come back from this disease, that in itself starts to shift the perspective around us.


Laura Lummer  21:33 

That's what helps people around us to have a different mentality and not treat us like people in the sick role. Right?


Laura Lummer  21:41 

I shared with some of my members on a coaching call last week, how I had gone out to dinner with some friends and with my husband, and our friends had brought along another person that we knew that we were acquainted with. At some point during the dinner, he was talking with my husband and my husband said that I had metastatic cancer. And the man said I don't know what metastatic means. And my husband said, Oh, she has stage four cancer.


Laura Lummer  22:05 

And you literally just fell back in his chair, put his hand on his forehead. And it was like, and he looked at me, and he didn't verbalize it. He just mouthed stage four.


Laura Lummer  22:19 

As if this were the last time you would ever see me in my life, right?


Laura Lummer  22:23 

As if that were a God help me if I could make it through dinner. And I just kind of laughed at him. And I giggle because I don't buy into that mentality. That is a long-term long-range mentality around cancer that is in this society that is in our world, but we don't have to buy into it, I choose to buy into the idea that our bodies have the ability to heal, and that I can do everything possible, to support and to increase my body's ability to do that. And even in the long term, if it doesn't work, I have lived a full and happy life while I was trying.


Laura Lummer  23:05 

And that is the magic.


Laura Lummer  23:08 

We can't be so attached to the outcome that we miss the moment; the joy is in the moment. And we always get to choose that.


Laura Lummer  23:17 

So, I hope that by sharing this concept of the sick role and kind of this popular way of thinking, and helps you have a little more awareness. So now you can ask yourself, do I do that? You know, do you put yourself in that sick role in the terms of demanding of yourself to be a certain way by a certain time expecting yourself to be something other than what you are, and then resenting things that remind you that you haven't achieved this possibly unrealistic expectation. Because if you can let that go, if you can sit down and really honestly look at it, it will set you free, it will release so much suffering, when you no longer have an expectation that you're supposed to be something other than what you are right now.


Laura Lummer  24:08 

Now, I know that that sounds much easier than it is, it takes time. It takes work, it acts, all change takes action. So really make a point of taking that action, get a piece of paper and a pencil out, and write at the top of it. What do I expect of my body and my healing, and just dump every single thought that comes to your mind onto that piece of paper so you can really look and see what you're doing to yourself?


Laura Lummer  24:35 

And then once you have that awareness, that's how you can start to create change for yourself.


Laura Lummer  24:41 

And I want you to create that change.


Laura Lummer  24:43 

I want you to have that fully inspired life that is fulfilling and wonderful and that you get to bring everything into you and into your body with that energy of this is what I do to support myself because you love yourself. Not because someone else told you you had to but Because you love and care about yourself, and this is just supporting that. That's a pretty cool way to treat yourself.


Laura Lummer  25:06 

Now you need help with that you know where to find me. I am on Facebook as Laura Lummer, I am on Instagram as the breast cancer recovery coach.


Laura Lummer  25:14 

And you can join me in the revived membership experience. It is open until midnight on Sunday, May 2, 2021. I got to be careful with this recording because I never know when someone what time they'll come back and listen to it. But come and join us in revived and bring the stuff to the table and get coaching on it and use the tools that we have inside the revived membership to really help you get a better understanding and more power over managing your mind and living a full and happy life.


Laura Lummer  25:49 

Alright, I hope that helps you. And I will talk to you again next week.


Laura Lummer  25:52 

Until then please be good to yourself and expect others to be good to you as well.



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