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What happens when we compare our child’s illness to another?

September 05, 2014

Recently, a friend shared with me a book whose title and premise really upset her. She is the mother of a cancer survivor and friend to many cancer patients, and the title of the book offended her to the core. It’s called, “I wish my kids had cancer: a family surviving the autism epidemic.” I hesitated even to share the title of the book because it elicits such strong emotions, even to those of us who’ve never read the book. And, I’m not sure that this book deserves the attention we’ve given it, good or bad.

You can imagine how each mother and father who are fighting for their children’s lives would feel at seeing these words in print. I think it feels like a stab in the gut-reckless and foolishly disrespectful of the pain and anguish these families have endured. The parents of cancer patients feel unfairly targeted, as if they’re being accused of a crime they didn’t commit. They’re just trying to keep their kids alive.

But, here’s the thing. In my years of advocating for children with all different types of diseases, I’ve seen this a lot. It’s not often as blatant as this example, but I’ve seen people make these types of comparisons between diseases. It’s almost always done with good intentions, but it is harmful nonetheless.

Here’s how it happens:

  • Did you know that more children die of X disease every year than A, B, and C but X disease gets twice as much funding?
  • X is the most common birth defect in kids, more common than A, B and C and yet we always hear people talking about A, B, and C, not X.
  • We need to create more awareness for X disease. Even though more children are affected by X than A and B, more research is being done to cure A and B.
These are common tactics we employ to explain to the world the uphill battle we are facing as we fight for the lives and the rights of our children who are suffering. We are desperate to convey the need, to spur people to action against the awful diseases that are taking our children from us.

However, comparing your struggle to someone else’s is inevitably harmful. Here’s why:

It minimizes the struggles of others

When the parent of a cancer patient hears someone say that they wish their child with autism had cancer instead, I bet their first thought is, “I just want my child to live.” When the parent of a child with autism hears someone say that they wish their child with a different disease had autism, I bet their first thought is, “I just want to connect with my child.”

No matter what the disease, the parents and the child have faced hardship. Does my hardship have to be worse than yours to be important? Are we really supposed to choose whether it is more desirable to have a child with whom we can connect but for a potentially shorter lifetime or a child who we can’t quite reach for a longer one? That is an absolutely unfair choice. And here’s the thing: none of us got to choose. We are doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt.

It makes us feel we must choose sides

When we compare diseases in order to raise money or awareness, we are creating the false pretense that people have to choose between one disease or the other because we can’t care about both. If one disease affects less people but is more well-known, should we feel resentful about that? Not at all. Because there’s room in our hearts to know about both, care about both and even give money to both. When we create this false dichotomy, it is dumbing the world down, making it much smaller than it actually is. We can love kids, root for kids, and fight for their causes no matter what their disease.

I believe that as parents who care about children who are fighting illnesses, we are much more alike than we are different. If you’re engaged in a battle for the life and well-being of your child, don’t misdirect your energy at other causes who you perceive as more successful at getting their message across, raising money or finding a cure. Focus instead on harnessing that energy for good. Rather than nitpicking our differences, let’s stand together to advocate for children. Our voices are stronger together than apart. We’re all on the same side.

It isn’t the whole story

When we give dry facts and figures to prove a point (perhaps it’s that one disease gets more funding or has generated more awareness) what we’ve inadvertently done is pointed the finger at those with that disease. But when we do that, we’ve missed the most important part. We’ve missed the people behind those numbers. Every number represents a child, a family, a story, and they are valuable all on their own. You don’t have to convince anyone that your child’s condition is worse than someone else for us to care about it.

Tell your story. We’ll care about it. I promise.