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Do You Identify as a Cancer Patient

Posted 8/28/2015

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  This essay by Heather Millar (linked at the end of this post) has stimulated my thinking about whether we identify, or not as a cancer patient. There are people who very much take on the mantle of cancer, and this can be a positive statement. Like the old Black and Proud slogan, these patients may choose not to cover their bald heads, to participate in many cancer-related activities, to focus their time and attention on their illness and recovery. Sometimes this changes over the months, and sometimes it does not.

  On the other end of the curve are the people who refuse to give cancer a single inch in their lives that it has not already forcibly claimed. They would never attend a support group, never go outside without a wig that looks exactly like their own hairstyle, put the whole difficult experience behind them as quickly as possible. "It's done, and I am never going to think about it again" becomes their mantra. This can also be a good strategy.

  Most of us fall someplace in the middle. It can be hard not to feel like a patient when in the middle of cancer therapy. You are required to spend a lot of time at the hospital, probably missing work, likely look different, and surely feel less well and energetic and strong than usual. My own experience, both times I had cancer, was probably in this large center group with the weird addition of already spending my days in Cancer World. The difference was that I was suddenly a full-fledged voting citizen rather than a long-time resident. Think of it as staff=expat while patient=citizen. 

  Again, being careful to appreciate that we each make the choices that best suit us, I do sometimes worry about people who continue to self identify as Cancer Girl long after treatment has ended. Whether they still attend many cancer groups and activities or make sure to tell new acquaintances about their medical history or use it as an excuse of any off day, it can be a block to moving on with life. Just about everyone thinks/worries about cancer before oncology appointments or scans/tests . I am thinking about one woman, who has been well for several years, but who has cat scans every three months. She is unable to shake that anxiety and literally worries daily about the cancer. That is lost time. Most people are able to put the anxiety and sadness back in the closet until the next time. 

  And here is the promised essay:

How Cancer Affects Your Identity
By Heather Millar

When I was just starting treatment, I read Promise Me, the memoir of Nancy Brinker, the founder of
Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the woman who started the whole “Walk for fill-in-the-blank” phenomenon.
She originally became a cancer advocate because she was so shattered by death of her beloved sister,
Susan G. Komen, who died of breast cancer.
Then, more than a decade later, Brinker got breast cancer herself. This is the part that has puzzled me ever
since: Here’s this woman who made advocating for breast cancer research her life’s mission. But when she
got cancer herself, she basically refused to acknowledge it. She bought a wig and continued to dress to the
nines. She kept working. She didn’t talk about her cancer. That, frankly, still amazes me.
Brinker managed to both make cancer the center of her life, and to refuse to be defined by it when she
became a cancer patient herself.
Most of us think we will opt for one approach or the other: We will make cancer our identity, or we won’t.

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