The Identity Crisis of Cancer
The “Survivors Talk” series is designed to give our readers a chance to ask a clinical therapist, survival specialist, and sister survivor questions about paddling the muddy waters of survivorship. Dear Cindy, I feel stuck and lost
The “Survivors Talk” series is designed to give our readers a chance to ask a clinical therapist, survival specialist, and sister survivor questions about paddling the muddy waters of survivorship.
I feel stuck and lost after my cancer. Everything is messed up and I am different. I just feel off. What’s going on?
The mental after-effect of many types of cancer treatments is often referred to as chemo brain . However, there is a bigger picture here. While you describe feeling “off” and “different” I wonder if you may be experiencing the “identity crisis of cancer?”
Moving through cancer is much different than moving past cancer. For one thing the “moving past” is much lonelier than the “moving through.” All our cheerleaders seem to pull away or drift apart from us once we have “finished treatments.” The other thing is that the person who went into cancer is not the same as the one who came out. Many cancer survivors have a sort of “identity crisis” as they move into survivorship. Their disease has identified them for so long that they have lost touch with who they use to be and more importantly, they don’t know who they are now.
In many cases, a cancer survivor herself has been changed at a core level by going through the traumatic experience of a life-threatening illness. Not only has she endured massive body and image changes (breasts, hair, weight, limbs, reproductive ability, etc.) but her role in the family, at work, socially and even spiritually may have also changed. And while your body is beginning to move on, your mind might still be in the foxhole of sickness.
To find out who you are now it might be helpful to develop a new vocabulary for yourself. For instance, many survivors referred to themselves as a “patient” or a “victim of cancer” when they were sick. Neither of these definitions will serve you well as you move away from the experience of illness. It’s time to re-define who you are.
In her beautiful essay, “I Am Not My Nipples,” Kayla Redig, a young breast cancer survivor describes how she took her life back from cancer and began to define herself by something other than her illness or a body part. Here’s how you can start that process for yourself.
First, let’s develop a “Strong Me” list. Begin by listing all of the things you are proud of about yourself. Surviving cancer can be one of them but get more specific. If you were able to drink Barium more quickly than others waiting for a scan or entertain other patients in the chemo lounge then name those strengths. Let me help you get started. Here’s the beginning of your “Strong Me” list:
If you offered warm hugs to your kids or parents while they were sad about your illness or gave money to a family you met in the hospital that was struggling to pay their bills, then I want you to add these virtues to your list:
And, if you can’t think of any good things about yourself, ask two of your most trusted friends or relatives to name the three things they like most about you. Even if you disagree with them, write down what they have to say.
It might look like this:
- You always make me smile
- You are a good dancer
- You always organize our family get-togethers
- You’re level-headed when it comes to money
Next, name the things you do that have meaning to you or other people around you. For instance, if you are an attorney, a teacher, a dancer, a mother or a physician write down what need this fulfills in someone else’s life. For instance, an attorney might write down that she brings value to others others by being a:
- Seeker of justice
In addition, being an attorney also represents that you were able to
- Study well
- Pass tests
- Work good under pressure
- Tackle big tasks
A mother of children might define the value of her important role like this. “I bring value to others when I…”
Likewise, her role as a mother means that she was able to:
- Develop a high tolerance for pain
- Operate effectively on very little rest
- Be flexible at all times
- Take on new jobs without much lead time
Take a look at the new you when we compile all of the Strong Me statements together.
I am not my cancer! Instead, I am an encouraging, helpful, generous person who makes people smile and keeps a level head with money. People enjoy me because I am funny and like to bring families together. I love justice and I am good at tackling big tasks. Not only can I operate on very little sleep but I can also be very flexible and take on new jobs with very little lead-time. Oh…and one more thing. I survived cancer and made it my Bitch. Need help with anything else? Just give me a call. I’m the girl for your job!”
You’re on your way Beloved!
If you have questions about how to take your life back from cancer and live fully into the future with cancer in your past, please write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll be looking forward to your letters!
The information provided in the column should not be used for diagnosing or treating a physical or mental health problem, disease, or condition. Please consult your medical doctor or psychologist or appropriate health care provider. If you think you have a medical or psychological emergency, call 911 immediately.