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    How Cancer Affects Your Identity

    woman with cancer

    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.

    One of my best friends has a sister who had breast cancer about 15 years ago. The sister is a bit of a hypochondriac, and she still talks about her breast cancer all the time. She also talks about all of her other ailments, so many I can’t remember them all. She has become the eternal patient, always suffering, always a victim. I guess it’s a great way to get attention.

    Needless to say, this sister drives my friend crazy.

    My husband used to have a young colleague at work who was obviously going through cancer treatment. Her hair always looked nice, but an experienced eye could tell that it was an expensive wig. She took a few days off every few weeks. She was refusing to acknowledge her cancer publicly. I admired her determination, yet it made me feel uncomfortable when I met her at company get-togethers. It was as if there was a big silent elephant at the cocktail party, a huge and crazy visitor that we could not acknowledge.

    I think the reality is that most cancer patients will do some version of what Nancy Brinker did: Sometimes we’ll want to make cancer our identity, and sometimes we’ll want to forget it.

    As cancer patients, if we can, I think we should signal how we want to be identified, and when.

    For instance, when you’re going through chemo, you may want to make cancer your identity. You may want to be pampered, and cherished and spoiled. You may want to be allowed to whine and whimper. But when you’re at work, perhaps you may want to leave your cancer at the receptionist’s desk.

    Just let those around you know which channel you’re on.

    And if you’re the friend or family member of a cancer patient, look for the signals. Cancer is complicated. Patients may want one thing one moment, and something completely different the next. Just roll with it.


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