Identification, Please?

identityRecently, a friend asked me how I think my cancer diagnosis has affected my sense of identity. As we talked that over, I was able to articulate some ideas that had been kicking around in my mind for quite some time. When I think about identity, I think of my sense of self, who I am, what I value. And I think that we all have grades of “self” that, taken together, make up our identity, but might shift depending on situations. I imagine some great personality equalizer, where various aspects dial up or down as required. We have professional faces, family faces, night out with the girls faces; I think this is natural, a freeing, and even an exploration, of different aspects of identity. It’s how we grow, change, how we accommodate and are open to others.

I value balance in my sense of self. I used to have it, effortlessly. I never really had to turn those dials manually, I guess I just ran on auto-tune. I think I’ve been fortunate to have a sense of self that was internal and not heavily influenced by outside opinions or labels. That’s why I think the effect of my diagnosis on my sense of self was insidious. I didn’t see it happening, which is probably why I didn’t call it out and put my finger directly on what it was. I just started thinking of myself as someone with cancer, someone who was sick now.

That made me angry. It resulted in too much time thinking about how unfair that is, and how I’m different from who I used to be, that who I used to be was lost and I couldn’t get her back. This kind of thinking was made worse by the sense that the loss was outside of my control, because now I have a TUMOUR.

I like to be an observer of myself in my own life sometimes. I’m not sure if everyone comes from the factory equipped with this trick of stepping outside yourself; in fact, I’m sure if we do, some people lose it or choose to ignore it. Others, perhaps, cannot turn it off. I think it’s a healthy thing, mentally, to be able to gain perspective, and it’s also often entertaining. It’s a perspective that has always helped me take things less seriously.

I am grateful for this habit (talent, addiction?) because I think it might be the one thing that saved me from a descent into self-pitying sloth. I remember the day, the moment in fact, that it happened. I was just beginning to explore dietary interventions for cancer management, and I was writing to a dietician I had connected with online. I was introducing myself, in the first few sentences of my note to her. I wrote “I am a 37 year old woman, with a grade two brain tumour.” When I saw that on the computer screen, I was suddenly outside myself, observing. And the first thing that popped into my head was “Wow, is that REALLY who you are? Is that the sum, the lead-in, the headline?” The editor that lives in my head immediately answered with a resounding “NO”.

I deleted what I had just typed. I thought for a minute and I re-typed “I am a 37 year old healthy woman; I have never been seriously ill; I am active and work as an executive in a small biotech company. A few months ago, I found out I have a brain tumour.” That made a huge difference for me. I sat back and looked at that screen again, and I realized that I was not sick. I felt the same as I had before anyone ever looked at my first MRI. I also realized that I define who I am, and it doesn’t have to start off with “I have a brain tumour” all the time.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot, and written here, about the concept of balancing how much space in my life this healthcare situation gets to occupy. I know I am fortunate, in that I am not undergoing invasive treatments at this time, so I get to control that more than I would if I was in chemo every day. I choose to pursue a balance in the facets of my identity; I can’t deny that these experiences are now part of it, but I’ve also consciously chosen not to allow them to overtake other aspects of who I’ve always been, and who I want to be. Or that’s my plan for now anyway.

11 comments

  1. Hi! I like the distinction between healthy person with tumour, and person with cancer. I’m glad you see yourself as the former I have thought about these issues a lot, too. (See http://www.empiri.ca/2014/01/being-having-and-doing-metaphysics-of.html.)

    There are some unique ways that psychiatric diagnoses get wrapped up in identity. Mainly it’s that they directly affect how you think and feel, so there is a weird second-guessing going on all the time, at least if you aren’t fooled by the disease states into forgetting their effect.

    If you have a strong sense of self, like you describe, then it can be unsettling to have to question: Hey that thought I just had, was that really me? And what does it even mean to ask that? I agree that even people not in that situation can benefit from an observer stance.

    Best,
    Amber

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    1. EXACTLY! That’s “the nail on the head” so to speak, what you say about being unsettled by having to question things. Unsettling? Un-glueing! I don’t think that’s a word, but you get my meaning I’m sure. Thanks for sharing your link, that’s the second time I’ve received it in the last few minutes. I suspect you know Zooko – he sent it on Twitter.

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      1. ambimorph · ·

        I definitely get your meaning!

        Yes, Zooko and I are well-acquainted. 😉

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  2. This is my testimony. I had issues and symptoms before I was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Having helped my husband fight his good fight of prostate cancer. I knew my battle had just begun. I was not going to be identified as a 67 year old fighting cancer. But as a woman who had so much to live for and so much I still wanted to do. I began to investigate and inquire options that I had in my quiver. And that quiver was full of arrows for this war I was in.
    I was not going to give in to being identified by this dis-ease. I now know the enemy and I plan on defeating it.
    Through a naturopath and a few close friends who were invested in my health and life, I began searching and changes things in my life. First and foremost was my diet.
    Second, I started using essential oils, specifically Young Living Essential Oils.
    I am past the half way mark of what they told me I could expect for my lifespan. And I have never felt so healthy in my life.
    At my last visit to Dana Farber Woman’s and Children’s Cancer Center, it was confirmed again to me that the tumor has not grown or changed in any way, but for the better.
    I have my Lord to praise and my faithful family and friends that hold me up in prayer on a daily basis. My life verse is ” I shall not die but live and tell of the marvelous deeds of the Lord” Psalm 118:17 !!!!

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  3. Thank you for your posts. Warm wishes to you all.

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  4. Debbie McNeil · · Reply

    Wow your blog really touched me! I am a brain cancer survivor and I feel the same way! I know initially the strong exterior was a facade but not anymore ! I think in order to survive we can’t let our cancer define us!

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  5. So, so essential. There’s a time when everything stops and cancer is almost the only word you ever hear – but it doesn’t stay that way, not every moment at least. It’s such a gift to define ourselves beyond that experience. it’s a gift to be able to do so. So, I get and am also trying to live what you write about here. Very good post. ~Catherine

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  6. christace · · Reply

    For good or ill (sorry for the pun), I have actually identified myself with my health history. After three very serious – near death – experiences, the core of my character has changed. I was humbled by these experiences, which changed my priorities substantially every time.

    However, my confidence has also been fortified by them. I have overcome two Type II meningiomas (12 years apart) and Crohn’s Disease (1997). I use these victories to spur me forward in far less important areas of my life. If, with a positive mindset and a holistic approach, can survive these health issues, there is little I can’t survive elsewhere in my life; financially, socially, spiritually, professionally.

    Like you do with your amazing blog, I also use my experiences to help others going through similar scenarios on a one-on-one basis. The most prominent lesson I pass on regards attitude; being positive and taking a “warrior’s” persona.

    I agree that I am more than my health history; but my experiences have also formed the person I have become. My one hope is that my story helps others in their respective life trials.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this perspective, it resonates for me. When I reflect on your words, I agree that we can’t unring the bell. I remember once after I’d made some young dumb life mistakes, I asked my dad if we could just forget them all and go back to how things used to be. He said “No, we can’t, because then you never learn anything. But we can go forward and remember them and we’ll still be okay.”

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  7. You’re so cool! I don’t suppose I have red anything like this before.

    So great to discover somebody with genuine thoughts on this topic.
    Seriously.. thanks for starting tgis up. Thhis
    web site is one thing that iis needed on the web, someone with
    a little originality!

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    1. Thank you Kathy, and thanks for reading!

      Like

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