Recently, 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.