There is an expression that is common among cancer patients and survivors. “I don’t want cancer to define who I am.” I have heard this stated many times over my survivorship of over 26 years. And my initial thoughts pretty much echoed those sentiments. Many simply want to move on with their life as if cancer never happened. And certainly, none of us want to be referred to as “someone who had cancer.” But lately, I have been wondering, is the expression perhaps being spoken incorrectly? Is it possible that we simply do not want it to “control” who we are? Perhaps we do not want it to “change” us. So maybe it is not so much as “defining” us, as much as it is “forming” us.
I have decided that I am going to take the perspective of cancer, not necessarily defining me, but rather, reminding me who I am, what matters in life, and what people really need to think of, when they meet me, or see me.
Until my diagnosis back in 1988 (almost 28 years ago this month), to say I was under the radar with even my own self-recognition would be an understatement. Nothing I was doing stood out, going to college, dated, listening to music. There was nothing really to indicate that life was never anything more than just going day to day.
But the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma kind of changed me, it woke me up. My only knowledge of cancer at that time, was that cancer killed. I was going to have to dig deep, to a place inside that I was never aware that I had. I was going to be challenged physically and emotionally not just for months, but for every waking moment of every day. I was going to have to deal with daily side effects that were not only painful, stressful, but exhausting. Just the mere thought of the “tasting” the chemo injection was enough to make me vomit. This is called “anticipatory nauseas”. I was able to “taste” this particular drug 24 hours before it was even given to me.
I did what I had to do to get through that time. The simplest thing I did was to “minimize” the length of time. Instead of 8 months of chemo, it was 16 injections of which only 8 made me nauseous for a total of 3 hours each time. Therefore in my head, I was convinced I would only deal with these issues for 24 hours. Sounds much shorter than 8 months.
As each month went by, it did get harder and harder. But as I got through one cycle, I knew I could get through the next cycle. And so forth until I was half way done, and then knowing I got half way through, I could get through the next half and then it became about how many more to go, after having gone through so many before.
A definition of me, pointed out by having cancer, was that I did have what it took to get through this horrible experience. It showed that if something was so important for me to get through, no matter what I was put through, I was going to achieve it. It proved I was never going to let anything be taken from me.
This mentality would benefit me many times in life after that. I battled an employer for discriminating against me, just because I had cancer. I fought for disability rights with another employer after it was discovered that I was dealing with late effects from the treatments that cured me of my cancer. Accommodations needed to be made to make it possible for me to continue to work, and I knew that was my right. I fought for that right. And yes, just like the days went through my treatments, there were bad days. My boss would make things difficult for not only me, but as if to put pressure on me, he would often make it difficult on my co-workers who would then turn their frustrations on me, in hopes of them putting pressure on me to back down.
Well, just as with cancer, I did not back down. And my remaining years with that employer were quite peaceful concerning my health issues.
And there are other examples in my life, post cancer, that I demonstrate this same mentality and determination.
So, if by having had cancer, if reminding me of what I always had inside of me to face any challenge in life, then yes, perhaps cancer has defined me. And that is a good thing.