And then the diagnosis hit her hard: breast cancer. But not just her, Belgian author Kristien Hemmerechts, it also hit her friends and family and students* and neighbours and fans and other people who know her. But in a different way than she expected. Quickly she found out that it is a binary world out there: those of the healthy people and those who have cancer. She discovered that people found it very difficult to cope with the situation. More difficult than she expected. “The unclearness of the situation has to do with it”, she says. “You do not look ill, you do not act ill. You do not feel ill. But there is a devastating disease in your body at work and you are terrified.” When Kristien lost two sons, reactions were warm. “We can all relate to that. And the response is accordingly.” Her mentally ill sister always told her: “Kristien, you have no idea what it feels like to have a mental illness”. Kristien: “I understand that better now.” Kristien wanted her daughter and step children to continue to behave normally after her diagnosis, she has been brought up in the idea that you should not be weak nor vulnerable and yet she needed attentiveness at the right moment without having to ask for it. “That’s the hard part, you give mixed signals yourself.”
All in all, there is a taboo on cancer and a huge lack of knowledge on different types of cancer and treatments. This translates in the awkward situations Kristien felt herself in during the period she had breast cancer. No reason for her friends and relatives to feel guilty now. She simply feels we can all learn from her experience. We can all be inspired by her journey. That’s why she wrote the book ‘Er gebeurde dit, er gebeurde dat’, which felt like a coming out. Surely we will be inspired when Kristien starts talking on stage and shares her very personal story about life and (near) death, about those who are healthy and those who are sick.
* Kristien Hemmerechts is professor in English literature at the University of Leuven, Belgium.