You Are Much More than Your Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

DECEMBER 31, 2018

Does cancer define you?

As we begin a new year, it is a good time to think about our life choices and perspectives. The tradition of making New Year's Resolutions is not one that I have ever much liked. It has always seemed that those resolutions create a lot of pressure and are likely to fail. As a regular gym-goer, I'm struck by how much more crowded it is in the first week or two of the new year. By the middle of the month, we are usually back to the regular crowd. I have learned that I do much better setting goals along the way rather than tying them to a particular time of year.

One of the decisions we all make is how much to let cancer control us. It's the old refrain: We can't choose or control what happens to us, but we can choose how we react.How big a part of our lives will we allow cancer to become? How much and how often do we want to share this information with others? Especially during active treatment, it is easy to let cancer become almost a full time job. Scheduling all the necessary medical appointments along with acupuncture or massage or a support group or other cancer-related activities can fill the calendar. I think of some people I have known who embarked on special and time-consuming diets along with beginning chemotherapy. These diets never seemed to last too long as the people decided they had better ways to spend their time than hours in the kitchen. However you think about it, cancer does change us and becomes a real and, sadly, a permanent part of who we are.Even after the safe passage of some years, we remember and respect the impact the disease and treatment had on us and on our lives. How much do you want cancer to be who you are? The answer changes over time, and there never is a right or a wrong one.

I remember being on my honeymoon in Africa in 1995; it was slightly more than a year since I had finished treatment for my first breast cancer, and the experience was very large and present in my heart and my life. There were many moments, sitting at dinner with others, riding in the open jeep to see the animals, that I thought: These people don't even know that I had cancer. Should I tell them? I never did, and it was liberating to think that others were oblivious to something that loomed so large for me. It was also a little unsettling. 

Obviously, when you are going through cancer treatment, there is usually less of a choice. Some people do manage to hide the fact because they don't physically look different. If you avoid chemotherapy, it may be entirely possible to not mention surgery or radiation to some people around you. This has always seemed a mixed blessing: It certainly is preferable to need less treatment and it is always nice to have options about what and whom to tell about our health. On the other hand, if we don't tell people, they can't support and help us.

There are many decisions we make as we go along that are related to our activities and coping. Should I join a support group? Should I join an advocacy group and maybe do a fund-raising event or walk? How much time and money do I want to devote to Reiki or acupuncture or other complementary treatments that may help my health and outlook, but will remind me of my patient-hood? As mentioned earlier, it is pretty easy let cancer be a full time job when you are going to multiple medical and cancer-related appointments. Is this how you want to spend your time? Or would you rather take a walk or play cards or go to the movies? It does not matter what your answer is; what matters is that you think about it, and make the best choice for yourself.

Many of us find that we become the designated Cancer Person in our various communities. Whenever someone is diagnosed, they call us. Or their families call us or their friends ask for advice about how to be helpful. We do know more about this than others who have not been through the experience, but you may or may not enjoy this role. My daughters found that, both because of my profession and especially because of my two cancer experiences, that they are often asked to have these conversations. Is that fair?

We can't pretend cancer never happened. Many of us are plainly reminded every time we dress or undress and see our changed bodies. Others are physically less changed, but we all have internal scars. Scars can be worn proudly and remind us of what we have accomplished. Scars can be minimized if we choose to focus on other things. This is a good time of year to spend a little time thinking about what you have been through, how you have changed and how you want to move forward in your life. For better or for worse, cancer will be a companion: Hopefully one who falls ever further behind you, but always an important influence on you and on your decisions. Make them carefully.

How important is the fact of cancer in your life? Please share your story in the BIDMC Cancer Community.