When you use your privilege during cancer

I can’t talk about being semi-diagnosed with cancer in Rwanda without talking about privilege. My first experience using my privilege during the diagnostic process was having a Human Resources for Health (HRH) member advocate on my behalf to get the wait time for the biopsy results down from about a month to 10 days. Not only was I privileged enough to know the right person, with the right amount of power to help, but I was and will always be privileged by simply being a white person. 

I felt deeply unsettled by this. Using my privilege felt wrong in so many ways, yet the fear of cancer in my body and needing to get treatment as soon as possible took over. I took advantage of my privilege. One thing I often wonder about is how my actions during that time impacted others. Was someone else’s pathology results delayed because mine were pushed forward? Most likely. Did the pathologist have to work longer hours to try to meet the timeline we pushed for? Maybe. What else or who else was impacted? I’ll never really know. 

From a self-preservation perspective, I understand why I allowed this to happen but from a moral perspective, it may be my biggest shame. In retrospect, I probably should have just gone home to finish the diagnostic process but I was holding on to a small piece of denial where I was hoping it wasn’t cancer and I could stay in Rwanda.

I often feel guilty about taking advantage of my privilege in that situation but I knew I couldn’t undo it. Instead, I decided to use my guilt for good and work toward change. My first job immediately after cancer was helping to strengthen public health laboratory systems internationally, specifically focusing on diagnostic capacity. I spent nearly 3 years doing this work and while that doesn’t resolve my guilt, I am proud of myself for taking action and will continue to try to do so throughout my life.

Aside from shortening the diagnostic timeline in Rwanda, I also had the privilege of being able to travel home to the United States (US) for an actual diagnosis and for treatment, both of which are likely more accessible and of better quality than in most of Rwanda. Honestly, there are probably more ways in which my privilege came to play here, but these are the ways that stick out the most to me. 

The possibility that a Rwandan in my exact situation may have not been able to afford diagnostic testing or treatment, may have had a delayed diagnosis at a later stage, or may have had fewer options for treatment is hard to digest. I know this inequity impacts not just health systems but education, food, housing and essentially all other systems we have to utilize. I am not an expert, but I continue to learn about and try to counteract these injustices with any work that I do. 

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