How Much does Cancer Define You

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

MARCH 16, 2018

  One of the decisions that we all make is how much to let cancer define us. 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? The answers change over time, and there never is a right and 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? never did, and it was liberating and little unsettling to think that others were oblivious to something that loomed so large for me.

  Obviously, when you are going through cancer treatment, there is usually less of a choice. Some people do manage to hide the fact if they so choose because they don't physically look different. If you avoid chemotherapy, it may be entirely possible to not mention surgery or radiation to less close people around you. Then there are the many decisions we make as we go along that are related to our activities or our 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 CAM treatments that may help my health and outlook, but will remind me of my patient-hood. It is pretty easy to have cancer become a FT 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?

  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?

  Here is an essay along these same lines from WebMD: (note that her choice is not to have caner define her, but, if your choice is otherwise, that is totally fine, too)


How to Keep Cancer From Defining You
By Heather Millar

Before you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re just a person, like everyone else. But once you’re diagnosed
with the big C, it can feel like you’ve become your cancer. People now start conversations with you with a
concerned tone, and “How ARE you?” As you begin chemo, and your hair starts to fall out and you begin
to really look sick, it feels like there’s a newly drawn line between you and the “normal” world.
Though others may treat you as if the cancer is front and center, you have the right to choose how you
want to acknowledge this scary disease and how you would prefer to talk about it. You may want to talk
about it all the time and treat it like a giant research project (like I did), or you might prefer to not talk
about your cancer at all. If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so. You can simply say, “I really
appreciate your concern, but I find that I cope better if we don’t talk about it. How about them Giants?” Or
You may feel uncomfortable when people notice you’re wearing a scarf on your head, or a wig. You may
be self-conscious about being pale or looking sick, or not having eyebrows. If your appearance really
bothers you, try to do what you can to look good. There are lots of nonprofits that help cancer patients
with wigs, fashion that’s sensitive to surgery scars, or makeup for folks in the thick of treatment. And if
you don’t feel like fussing over your clothes and makeup, then let it go. As hard as it is, try not to worry
about how others react. You’ve got enough on your plate. Focus on you.

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