Cancer Diagnosis and Identity: Who are you?

One of the most significant mental health issues that I’ve recognized, both in myself and other cancer patients, is what the disease does to our self-identity. It’s as if we have to fight to remain ourselves after we are diagnosed with cancer. There are days when I feel caught in the middle of something. Although it’s true that ovarian cancer has substantially influenced my lifestyle, and to some extent how I view the world, it’s not all I am—I’ve struggled to make even those closest to me understand this paradox. It’s difficult to explain that while my self-identity is not entirely unchanged, I will always remain so much more than a cancer survivor or an oncology patient.

Regrettably, over the course of my journey, I’ve learned that our society still has misperceptions about chronic illnesses, such as cancer. and that there is still indignity for those of us living with such conditions. For instance, one family friend became rather reclusive when she was informed that I was going through cancer treatment and behaved as if a cancer diagnosis might be contagious. She further assumed that all chemotherapy patients lose most of their hair and offered to loan me an old wig she had. But then, this legacy isn’t surprising considering the profound fear, confusion and stigma surrounding cancer for centuries. Until relatively recently the word was hardly spoken in public or said out loud. It’s no wonder that some of us living with cancer still choose to avoid revealing our illness to anyone outside of our inner circle of family and close friends. We don’t want to be viewed differently—we just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. 

Of course, the health care system and the medical establishment are especially challenging—we are made to feel anonymous and are often reduced to nothing more than numbers or charts, it hurts that we are being robbed of our individualism. I was personally made to feel an acute lack of identity when some nurses and hospital workers didn’t call me by my correct or preferred name. Their error would stem from the fact that I’ve always been called by my middle name, and not my first like most people. I read a short poem recently that almost perfectly captures the feeling that I had on the cancer unit. Names by Wendy Cope describes a woman as she moves through life’s stages, the author deals with themes such as self-identity, ageing, illness and death. 

Names 

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby –
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did – friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

This poem becomes the heart-breaking reality for many cancer patients as we find ourselves navigating the hospital or other medical institutions. We feel ourselves diminished and our individual worth slipping away. As patients much of our privacy and control is essentially gone, on a hospital unit we must wake when we are told, wear what we are told and eat what we are told. Often, we don’t have the luxury of a private room, we must share a room with whomever, they say we have to. 

In his classic New York Times bestseller Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande examines identity and how it’s often diminished for residents of hospitals and nursing homes. The author, a medical doctor, uses case studies and also discusses the reality of chronic illness and ageing within his own family. Gawande writes that the battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid being so diminished or dispirited or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or what you want to be. 

Similarly, Bonnie Annis, a breast cancer survivor and contributor to Cure magazine, recently wrote about the identity trap that we find ourselves in. “Just because a disease comes knocking on the door, does a life necessarily become drastically changed? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always,” she insists. “Taking time to hold tightly to identity can actually help with the ability to get through cancer. For example, if a person fails to remember how resilient she was before cancer, she may find herself struggling to keep her head above water when things get tough.”

Annis concludes that none of us escape cancer unscathed. It’s a life-changing and life-altering disease, but allowing it to become our identity is not an option. We’re all too precious and too different to live within the confines of the world of cancer. We can’t afford to give it the power to rob us of our identities.

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