The Cancer Identity

From the beginning, I was always afraid of losing a part of myself to cancer and of having it replaced with the Cancer Identity.  I didn’t want to be That Girl With Cancer – whether in the eyes of people who knew me well or not at all (and certainly not from my own perspective.)  I was convinced, for example, that I would never be seen without a wig.  And yet that has turned out not to be a significant part of protecting myself from being stormed by the Cancer Identity at all.


But having lived with cancer for less than a year, I’m already wrestling with the question of what it has done to my identity.  Showing my baldness or blogging about it are very public ways of saying “I have cancer.”  So clearly I haven’t slammed the door on the very idea that cancer is in my life.  But I question the wisdom of opening the door too much.  I sometimes fear that the disease is gaining some kind of permanent foothold on my identity.  Just imagine posting this blog every day and seeing that picture of a person that looks like me but obviously has cancer, and in case I missed it, right next to the photo are the words “Living With Breast Cancer.” Hard to reconcile That Girl With Cancer and my existing self-perception.  I think “total buzz kill” comes close to describing the experience of actually recognizing yourself in such an obvious person-with-cancer role those first few shocking times.


But I feel strongly that fighting off a cancer “victim” mentality is a healthy response, even if it sometimes just amounts to denial.  I do mean staying as positive and open as I can be, yes, but also not changing my entire life to accommodate the disease.  I won’t do things that make me feel like I’m letting cancer dictate who I am (eating kale, for example).  And there are things I won’t change because I just plain like them and they make my life feel whole and good and worth living for (drinking champagne, for example).  


I have issues with the word cancer “survivor” too.  When have we survived it, exactly?  After 2 years?  After 5?  25??  That sounds like a kind of harrowed title to be slapping yourself with for any extended period of time.  To me, it bespeaks trust issues and dark circles under the eyes and startling at the sound of cars backfiring.  And as my friend Amy says, sure she survived cancer, but she also survived being a teenager and giving birth.  Where does the “surviving” stop and the living begin?


Basically, I don’t want to give cancer any more permanence than it absolutely demands.  I’ll go through the treatments and do whatever it takes to up my odds of beating it, because I love my life and I want it back, even if when it comes back it features a little more kale. 


What happens to you when you have cancer is real. I liken it to having a child: you can decide that your child won’t change your lifestyle fundamentally, that you will adapt but basically remain who you are – and to some extent this can be done.  But on the other hand, the force of change is not something that is inherently bad.  There’s no point in resisting change just because it’s change – especially if it will grow you.  God forbid we should all remain exactly who we were 5, 10, 15 years ago. One day I really want to be able to file cancer away with my bad relationships and gravest fashion faux pas – they weren’t my identity either, just something I had to go through to grow to where I am now.  Right now I have cancer – but cancer isn’t who I am.  


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