Finding My Cancer Cake

Finding My Cancer Cake

Cancer’s a jolting teacher – and one life preserving lesson for me is that to have a chance at staying alive, I must let go of toxic people that I’ve always tried to fix. Yes, it’s the holidays, and I’m talking about my family.

Like so many of us women in pain, there was a ton of trauma in my childhood. This included domestic violence, divorce, mental illness and suicide which lead to much physical illness, non-communication and substance abuse. Being the oldest girl, middle child and the sensitive one, I naturally played the fixer. For years growing up I did much of the cooking and cleaning while trying to mend fences between everyone and everything. There’s nothing more important to me than family, and when I saw no chance of the clouds parting, I even starved myself in hopes it would bring us closer.

Yes, when I was twelve, I endured forced hospitalization for anorexia. I almost died because of them then, and I’m on the path to dying because of them now. But I’m steadfast in my new-found resolve to pick the lock, to unshackle myself from those I love most and who hurt me the deepest.

Cynthia Toussaint

After getting CRPS 37 years ago, most of my family members pretty much high-tailed it. And though I got cards from a few well-meaning relatives, apologetically pledging their future support, it never happened. The sad truth is the sicker I am, the crueler they get.

Years ago, a family member (out of guilt, I suspect) told me that he took care of everyone he knew with cancer. In fact, he baked each of them a cake. “On their really bad days, it picks them up. It’s the least I can do.” Wow, that admission hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d been living with “The Suicide Disease” for three decades at that point, and I’d never received so much as an inquiry about my health, let alone a cake. Now I have cancer, but still not a lick of frosting.

For Thanksgiving, I made the massive mistake of spending the day with my family. While I’ve for the most part stayed away from gatherings for the past decade, somehow I thought that because I now have the deadliest form of breast cancer, I’d be safe – and as the fixer, I could mend some wounds. I was wrong.

When that family member showed up with his brood, insults quickly escalated to injury – and after dinner, I called him on a cruelty, asking to talk it through. Instead, he and his family verbally attacked me together and individually. It was ugly and pathetic, like when there’s a sick bird, the others peck away at it until it dies. John and I made an exit before dessert for self-preservation. After talking with my therapist, I understand that my cancer makes them even more uncomfortable with their feelings.

When I recently saw my wonderful pain doctor, who knows me well and sits on For Grace’s Board, I asked if he agreed with my oncologist that CRPS caused my cancer. He stunned me with this bitter pill. “I believe the many years of your family strife, mixed with your pain, has put immeasurable stress on your body, giving you cancer.”

Bingo! For more years than I can count, I’ve intuitively known and shared with John my fear that somehow my family would end me. To put a finer point on it, it’s my inability to let them go that’s placed me on the doorstep of death.

A decade ago, a family member sent me an email of good-bye, her reason was that I love too much, code for “I’m not strong enough to be there for you.” I was devastated as she and I had been the closest growing up and, before becoming a substance abuser, she called me her “soul mate.” I don’t think I smiled for about eight years as the depression never lifted. I struggle to this day.

In an attempt to save myself from her and them, I took Buddhism classes and often visited a local temple for private teachings with a monk. Also, I continue to practice mindfulness meditation daily – and have gone through years of intensive therapy. Though everything I’ve learned about detaching one’s self from a dysfunctional family makes sense in my head, I always trip and my heart pulls me back. John and my close friends plead with me to stay away from them, but still I falter.

With all due respect to the loving, caring souls who have pulled every lever in their arsenal to lead me to the light, cancer is my ultimate teacher – and it has left me with two choices. One, step away from my toxic, illness-inducing family and have a chance to live, or Two, stay enmeshed and die.

I’m choosing One. And it’s the hardest, most heart wrenching thing I’ve ever attempted.

Over the holidays, I’m being deliberate by spending my time with supportive, life-affirming friends and colleagues, along with the few family members who stayed. These angels, including wonderful John and my dear mother, will be by my side through cancer treatment which will begin with my first chemo infusion on January 7th.

Before then, for my 59th trip around the sun on New Year’s Eve, instead of waiting by the phone in hopes that a family member will think of my birthday and call, I’ve blocked their numbers – and will travel back east to be with one of my most beloved girlfriends. Ruby has multiple auto-immune diseases that have required many infusions over the years. My port placement was an off-the-charts nightmare due to CRPS complications, and she’s one of the dear souls who’s kept me on the road to treatment. When I return, a colleague who I love dearly will visit all the way from Amsterdam to give me a hug.

“There’s nothing more important to me than family.” That hasn’t changed. But though it feels like my insides are being pulled and twisted as “blood” bleeds me out, I’m yearning to change my definition of family.

So many of us women suffered exquisite familia trauma which provided the building blocks for our adult onset high-impact pain… and maybe cancer. It devastates me to see sisters hanging on and taking blows while trying to fix the unfixable. Save yourself and leave before it’s too late. Stop hoping for cake when all they’re going to give you are crumbs. And toxic ones at that.

There’s a whole bakery out there, full of sweet affirmations. I hope we can all find the strength – which took me decades and cancer to embrace – to move on.

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Cynthia Toussaint founded For Grace in 2002. It is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to gender disparity in the treatment of pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.

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With all due respect it would appear that your pain is stressful to them and therefore see you as uncomfortanle and avoid you or worse say mean things around you that slip out. Think of it their way. Already crazy then your pain then cancer. Thing to do? Run like hell. Could this be possible.


I was the youngest of four daughters came from a house with alcoholic mother a Sicilian father he had a vocal temper but we could always calm down he never called us negative names all names began with D but I lived the all the wars my sisters did but each got wise .I married abusive man he was a multiple abuser. But my dad passed. He hated that guy. But someone needed to take Mom and since she only had a few yrs on mortgage. I got talked into taking her and I would get house.great I got beat daily verbally physical and mentally if he drank and he did. I got him out of my house after dating from 8 the grade. Got dx with Crohn’s lost nearly 90 lbs found a great man never physical but sometimes mental but make it shot took car of mom big family fight on maternal side so lost family had no choice of a side Nana got sick sent to me and I had Crohn’s got her well she went to Aunt with Pop Nana passed Pop had a fight with Aunt guess who my sisters elect me now it’s Pop who was great grandpa to my children me 4 generation mom was retired I worked with 2 kids Crohn’s getting worse. It all ended on April 1 2010 the last one my mom passed I have severe chronic Intractable back pain. Had 3 failed surgeries between all this where are my sisters my on family besides my husband and girls I guess living healthy lives😇


Dear Cynthia,Thank you for sharing your story.I am sure it took alot of courage.I am in a similar situation myself and made the tough choice to not spend Christmas with one of my Son’s,his,wife,and my first and only Grandaughter. I love my son and his Daughter but his Wife not so much. I have always loved my Son but had to push away when I was diagnosed in 2018 with Cancer because right before my Surgery was my Birthday and he only showed up to visit me that day because my other kids told him,You never know ,this could be Mom’s last Birthday.He stayed about 5 min because he has a very controlling wife who runs the show.His choice for allowing it! Things have not changed as much as I have tryed to compromise.They are aware all the pain I live with and some other new health issues I just found out about and need biopsy.I do not expect them to revolve their life around mine at all.I haven’t even told my Son about my new issue but once again I did not see them for Christmas because I was told If I wanted to see my Grandaughter I had to go to their house the day after Christmas because Christmas as with every Holiday they are with her Mom who is also my Son’s Boss as far as employment.They see her daily .I could not go because the pain and stress I have been in of the possibility of reoccurring Cancer.The pain has been unbearable so much that I hurt to move.I spent a,quiet Christmas at my House with my Other Son who is supportive and understands.I felt no stress and at peace with my decision.They are no longer speaking to me and I’m fine with that.I removed myself from all that and though I don’t feel good about it I made peace with my choice. I need to be around people who are not toxic and enforce more positivity into my life.I totally understand and agree with you to remove those out of your life.They seem to be doing more harm than good and you don’t need that.Your smart to surround yourself with those who support ,Love,care and understand.Prayers for you Cynthia.

Rose Montgomery

Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.


Absolutely wonderfully written and a wise but hard choice to make. I too had to disconnect from my family of 7 brothers and sisters after my father died in 2001. Only in the last decade did I reconnect with 2 sisters and stand by my baby brother for his 1 year battle with stage 4 colon cancer. Family is important and now I have 2 sisters who I love and they me and are what i consider my family. But my TRUE family is my husband and our 2 grown daughters and their husbands and my 1 and only grandchild. They understand and support me in my lifelong sickness journeys.
Keep fighting stay positive and surround yourself with that and it helps and goes a long way.
I pray for you! Not only your physical health but peace and light to carry you through this next journey! God Bless you!

Valerie Hirschberg

Thank you for sharing Cynthia. Your courage shined through without bitterness. That, precious one, nurtures health. I am at the crossroads with a family member, who very recently raged against me and threatened me. I just had major back surgery and am fairly petite. I am choosing no contact with him. Letting go is painful but best in some circumstances. Prayers for a successful treatment for your cancer.

Rebecca Harp

I never knew this wretched side about your family and am very sorry about it. It sounds worse than what I went through with my mom, whom I have forgiven. I was terrified of her and to this day my nerves make me weak. I only have a few good hours to work a day. My system is very adrenalated, or something like that. I don’t feel nervous, but my body seems to live that way. I loved to leave my house and come sit with you and yours. I adopted you as my family. I don’t know how you feel about me, Cynthia, but I love You. Becky

Jim Moulton

Family and chronic pain. I can understand why family could make chronic pain worse. I don’t really have family now. I have a sister who lives about 800 miles away. We talk about two times a month. She has chronic pain too and has had it for a lot longer than me. Her pain doctor seems pretty good. She has neck problems. I have neck issues, plus scoliosis, sciatica and some disc herniation problems. I have been on oxycodone for a long time. Right now, I am on a generic brand that does not work very well, My parents were divorced when we were very young. I have had alot of health issues both physical and mental.
I don’t know why I developed the chronic pain other than the type of work that I did,I worked in 2 psychiatric hospitals . That involved a lot of lifting and controlling mentally ill patients. I have bipolar illness myself.

Sandra Stedinger

Hello Cynthia —
Thank you for sharing this very sensitive and personal information. I have Fibromyalgia and multiple chemical sensitivities, and multiple other problems. When my ninety-year-old Mother needed to go to a care facility, and then had a stroke, my brother changed from Dr. Jeckel to Mr. Hyde. He took over all control over Mother’s care and her finances, and blocked me from communicating with the nurses. I am a retired Physician and wanted to be very involved with her care. He told me that I was stupid, disgusting, and detestable, until I almost started to believe it. He lied to the nurses about me, and accused me of lying to him. Mom has passed away, peacefully, and I have separated myself from brother and his evil family. My therapist told me not to send Xmas cards or contact them. I still get nightmares. Life has been a continuing nightmare. It has been hard to believe that a brother who was such a nice guy drifted over to the dark side.

Julia Heath

Wow does my heart ache for you. I’m so blessed with loving & supportive family my entire life, but just as important to me has been my church family, my relationship with my creator God Almighty, and by protecting the peace & joy that my Savior gives me like an old cranky dog protects a juicy bone! But that’s required for me to survive the amount of unexplained pain that I carry around. All those things are required in order for me to have pain instead of pain having me. Do hold on to those who truly love you & who receive love back from you – i can tell from what you wrote that that’s an important part of your inner fulfillment. Let me encourage you to find a Bible based church where you feel loved, accepted, and covered no matter what you’re going thru. My church is a wonderful group of people from every place & experience in life – from life long church goers to recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, to those who’ve been damaged greatly, as you have, by toxic, freaky family – and have learned how to forgive them, pray for them, and then leave them at the feet of Jesus. That’s only possible by them being around those who truly love them & truly love Jesus, and who’ve experiences true forgiveness themselves. I pray that you are surrounded by those kinds of people. Just as strife is damaging and dangerous, peace and the love of Jesus are healing and wholeness!

Chrystle Fiedler

Thank you so much for sharing Cynthia! You are incredibly brave!

Like you I clung for years to the idea of my fantasy family. Boy was I wrong!

I even moved back from LA to NY to follow this fantasy. When I was infected by Lyme disease which 10 years later has become chronic and suffered a facial injury within 10 months which to this day is 10+ painful without meds everything fell apart.

My mother helped me financially and to this day my younger sister is angry and resentful about it even though she never asked for help.

This year I’d had enough! I already was estranged from her and she pulled my beloved nephew into the mess.

My mother and father now gone since 1988 criticized me until I felt raw when I was growing up.

I’d already distanced myself from my mother who lived in the same town when I finally decided to “get out!” this past summer.

Still sick and in pain I sold my house and in September moved to the Atlanta area to be treated by an innovative Lyme disease doctor and to be near my closest friend.

It hasn’t been easy. My mother is now 92 and has dementia. When my sister texted me that she was having trouble eating I worried that the end was near. Because of this I looked into moving back there. Like you I know the pull is strong.

Thank God after talking to my friend I realized that I would be sacrificing myself and my health for her. I did not move back or go home for Christmas for the first time in my life.

I have found a great place to live, a fun car, great doctors who really care, a new vet who is proactive in treating my older dachshund and wonderful pet nannies.

Moment by moment I am receiving wisdom and guidance from the Universe.

I am helped by the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle and How to be Sick author Toni Bernhard and recommend them to you on your journey.

You are loved and supported. It’s ok to let go of your family of origin.

Wishing you peace and courage and blessings!

Free at last,


So much truth to your story – so few can comprehend.

Please get better. My thoughts are with you.

Rhea Bullock

Oh, Cynthia, my heart breaks for you. I don’t know what I would do without the love and support of my family. I pray the Lord will comfort you through your journey.

Denise Bault

You are not alone! I. too, am ill in part because of family; I have also received those same “toxic crumbs.” Some didn’t even give me that. And I did what you are doing; A year ago, I decided to leave them and their toxicity behind. This past Christmas was one of the most peaceful I’ve had in 62 years! When a negative thought about one of them enters my mind, I remember to say a prayer for them….wishing them peace, love, health and prosperity. The bitterness and resentment I feel towards them is slowly leaving and is being replaced with compassion, understanding and love. (Try it, It takes about two weeks of prayer, but it works!) I know now that they cannot give what they do not possess. You are wise to surround yourself with people who truly care about you…to have one good friend is better than a thousand relatives. May God bless you and keep you as you continue on your very difficult journey!

Dianne M

Thank you for sharing your story. I’m of a different viewpoint on the causes of disease and cancer but I can absolutely relate to toxic family and being the fixer, or peacemaker of the bunch. It’s very draining of our energy and can indeed make us sicker.
I too have made an oath for the new year not to be walked on or taken for granted by those we didn’t choose to be in our family. Prayers to us both on staying strong, healing, and letting go. Hugs.

Maureen M.

continued: That long post cut me off 🙂
I will end with this…Cynthia, all I can say is that we have to try even harder to distance our selves and protect our illnesses. I do not blame you for trying again to be with family. It’s why I moved all the way back East! (I’m a glutton for punishment I guess! LOL!)
Especially given your condition right now. The child in us is forever searching for the love and hugs of those who just can’t give it to us. I deal with that part of me and that disappointment sneaking up on me all of the time, even with lifetime friends of mine. It stings a lot!
You have great support all around you. I have none (just God). So please try to keep focus only on those who do hold you up.
Enjoy your visits with your friends and know that I will be praying for you as you start your treatment. I know it won’t be easy but… You hold inner strength, you can do this…one step at a time. With love and care, Maureen M.

Maureen M.

Dear Cynthia, Merry Christmas and wishes for a ‘New’ Year bringing you freedom from Cancer. I believe. I’m sorry you had this experience with family. I had to take several slow, long deep breaths while reading your post. I understand your issues 110%! I know that I am in that category of ‘your childhood is what has probably given you life with Chronic Spine Pain and Systemic Lupus. My therapists over the years have all said ‘you really ought to write a book on ‘Survival through Dysfunction’. I would name it “Here we go again’! Ha ha!
But, I learned many years ago to detach in order to be true to myself and keep some semblance of calm and happiness in my life. I even moved cross country to Cali. to get any from them for 20 yrs. Not to say that I don’t have somewhat of a relationship with them (I happen to be the oldest (fixer!) of 8!! but I’ve taken heed to my lessons for setting boundaries. I spent 20 yrs of birthdays and holidays without my family and love every memory of the family I had created in California.
Back on the East Coast now (near family) has bought me many lessons once again but…once again I have set (new) boundaries.
I too spent Christmas with my family and it was not easy…there’s so much dysfunction!
And I had just been in bed very ill with my Lupus for 5 days prior.
I was blessed with just enough energy to make it that day. I would’ve preferred to stay home and heal (knowing what was ahead of me that day!) but the depression of being sick and alone another day was getting to the best of me by then…so I pushed hard to shower/dress and drive there (and make the best of it).
They all knew I was sick and alone but no one came to help or even visit me, and 4 of them live in the same town. And, not a single one asked me ‘How are you today? I’m so happy you made it here today’. Yup…that hurt. Soooo, once home that night, I had to use my resources to not let it effect me to harshly. Regardless, it always brings up the past nightmares.

Ronda C

As a fellow “fixer” and breast cancer patient, I felt your pain reading this. I am inspired by your maturity in turning your energy toward nourishing yourself and refusing crumbs. Fixers take an active role in making the world a better place; and in doing so, can give so much of themselves away. I wish you the best as you begin your chemo treatment.

Cindy too

Cynthia, there are no words.
You also make me think differently of my own toxic family situation, my adult onset PTSD, and then horrific chronic pain.

Bernie King

Do women who had an aggressive invasive breast cancer and that had (the red devil) FEC Chemo Therapy still suffer years later with pains and aches and nerve damage etc ?

Janice Miles

Hello, I too have a family (2 brothers and their wives and children) that I believe want to see me dead. I fave Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, and was just diagnosed with Hepatitis C. I spent 4 days in intensive care in April due to diabetes and my inability, at the time, to maintain a high enough blood sugar. When I got out, I sent an email to the youngest brother letting him know what I had been through. He never responded. About 12 years ago I decided I had to stop trying to maintain a relationship with either of them but you want so desperately to maintain a relationship that it’s hard to say no when they dangle a tidbit out there. Please, don’t let these people back in your life. I’m saying “no”again to that toxic relationship. It’s so hard to understand why they would treat anyone like that much less their only sister………..but they do. I’ll make a pack with you and we’ll both stay away. If you ever need me. You have my email address: Best wishes on your chemo. Living a rich, full life is the best thing you can do!

Michael Kastner

Again you touch my soul. I agree ridding ourselves of those blood suckers, often family or friends is the most important thing we can do, w or w/ out Illness. We are not Dr Phil. Shit, he doesn’t really do well himself w toxic people.
I adore your strength fo rid yourself of these people who are non-supportive abs surround yourself with loving caring people. It’s not the quantity it’s the quality of people in our lives
Bring chronically ill is no joke. Having life threatening illness is often cruel and relentless.
I wonder how Buddhism handles these illnesses? Acceptance is so difficult.
Again, my outpour if love and strength is being sent your way in hopes it helps you get through just a moment.
You are an inspiration and a lovely person Cynthia. May you long live in health and happiness!
Michael Kastner

Thank you for sharing, Cynthia. Your challenge as a self-directed adult with moral judgment, is to set an example for the ignorant children around you, of what is acceptable behavior from others. The cruelty from your blood relatives is saddening but they’ve all made the moral choice themselves, to put cruelty ahead of reality. They chose to be cruel so that they felt no responsibility to make choices of their own. They became petty, small, weak people who achieve little and envy those who accomplish anything. In their twisted minds, your unforgivable crime was to do something with your life.

Example: Back before CRPS kicked your posterior, you used to dance professionally. My scoliosis makes it exhausting to do more than a few minutes of dancing so I do it rarely and with more enthusiasm than skill. But I can enjoy watching someone else dance. Or play sports that I’m too screwed up to play myself. It feels good to see them happy. In the recent NCAA volleyball quarterfinal game, the women’s team from Baylor lost to Wisconsin…and immediately invited the winners into their prayer circle after the game, where they shared a prayer and a hug. The winners were crying and the losers were crying because they appreciated one another’s efforts at playing the game. I absolutely loved it!

Envy is Reality’s way of reminding us that we could have done better if we tried. Cruelty is our effort to blame someone else for our own choices to do nothing. John is a keeper, Cynthia. Walking out on the cruelty was the right call…he’s more family to you than they are.


Bless you, Cynthia. Were I to know your whereabouts, I would certainly give you a hug. I was dead until I met Christ. Not those who professed to know him, or, those in the first Church I attended; which was the reason I quickly turned bitter and away from Jesus
When my life came to a place with similarities as yours, I turned back to Jesus, and focused upon Him instead of my troubles (as much as I would give over to God, that is)., and learned not to put much faith in people because they cannot give you everything you need like the Lord. Of course there are hopefully a couple close people who I believe are truly angels sent from the Lord to watch over and comfort us while we’re still here. Thank you for you, Cynthia, what a blessing you’ve been to many. Let the grace of God be your gift in Jesus. His love is unconditional, and there’s a future and a hope we can count on. It’s out of this world. Love, Virginia


Cynthia, thanks for sharing! The whole way thru I saw myself in your writing. I’m a people pleaser, always hating if anyone was sad or down. I was always picked on, put down, and after I had 1/2 my liver removed I found the best therapist! She helped me learn to say “no” to family members who always wanted me to do their talking. I too, had to remove myself from them. I still talk to them but I don’t share any health info.

I believe cancer creeps up from this kind of thing. Stress is a killer!

Do what you have to do for you! Nurture yourself! We are no good to others , like your wonderful husband, if you aren’t mentally healthy.

I’m praying for you!

Thank you for this post!

Alanna Wilgus

A dear friend of mine recently told me to cut the toxic people out of my life which I am now doing. I am realizing that if I am constantly working to keep someone from being angry with me about nothing, then they are not really a friend at all. I had inadvertentedly surrounded myself with emotional vampires to the point where I had nothing left to give. It has been very difficult, but I can already feel the difference. I continue to pray for you!

Tabatha Johnson

Thank you for your story Cynthia! I honor you, sister.