Just because you have it, doesn’t mean you are it, so knock it off…
Whether seemingly innocent or grossly ignorant, labeling is a dangerous practice and should be carefully considered. There are psychological journals full of studies supporting the idea that when a person is given a label, he or she will adapt characteristics which support stereotypical attributes of the label. Over the past few months I have been introduced on several occasions as ‘Tracy, a cancer survivor’ or something equally appalling. There is so much that is wrong with this.
One of the hardest parts about having cancer is the overwhelming vulnerability I felt when I had to tell people about it. I hated the idea that I may either freak people out, have to endure the pity face, or get some awkward or inappropriate reaction that would make me feel even worse. All that happened, of course. Here are some of the better lowlights:
- “Oh my god, I know so many people who have died from cancer this year. Is there something in the water or what?”
- “So when do you start chemo? You should just cut your hair really short now so it won’t be a shock.”
- No words. Just waterworks.
- “That sucks. Has it spread?”
- “No way! My cousin had colon cancer.”
- “No way! My cousin had liver cancer.”
- “No way! My cousin had brain cancer.”
- “No way! My cousin had prostate cancer.”
- “That’s terrible. My mom died from breast cancer, too.”
The point being, most people don’t know what to say and although they don’t mean to spew moronic word vomit, they do. I guess I get it, sort of. I used to have an almost unbearable urge to swear in church. I suppose the triggers are similar. Maybe bad news makes us insensitive. Or maybe fear of the word “cancer” induces nonsensical gibberish. Regardless, it was enough to make me want to keep my situation to myself at times.
The last thing I wanted was to be known as “Tracy with cancer.” From the very beginning I fought against becoming a stereotype, constantly reminding myself that the cancer wasn’t me. Nor was I it. It wasn’t my definition or my disposition. It wasn’t my hair, my clothes, my smile or my laugh. It wasn’t my relationships or my vocation or my soul. It was cancer. I was me. Mutually exclusive and yet, at least for the time, colliding. It was the moon passing my Venus, or whatever. At best, we (me and cancer) were the proverbial ships passing in the night but never, ever, a proverbial big bang of any proportion. Of that I was certain.
Chemotherapy is an awful, debilitating, devastating drug protocol. Besides wreaking havoc on your body, it has the potential of diminishing a person’s self-identity. When I told my daughter that I had cancer, I made sure to explain to her that the physical symptoms that she associates with cancer are more likely the effect of chemotherapy treatments. Although I never ended up going through chemo, I constantly thought about what it would be like. The side effects and residual damage were an awful proposition, but even more troublesome to me was the prospect of losing my hair. Vanity definitely played a role in that but moreover was the idea that without hair, everyone would know that I had cancer. It was hard enough telling my close friends and family, but the idea of explaining the situation to strangers was terrifying. I was afraid that it would systematically define me as a cancer patient, which was the very last thing I wanted to be.
I, like every other person who has ever had a medical condition, am essentially the same person as I was 30 seconds before my diagnosis. I, and you, should never concern ourselves with the task of managing stigma. Seriously, we’ve got enough to deal with, right? Cancer should never be given the power of defining a life. I, and you, your sister, best friend, co-worker or whomever, are not exclusively cancer survivors but rather, people who had or have cancer. It’s on us to extrapolate whatever wisdom, insight and meaning we can from the experience that cancer presents, while never forgetting that in the end, we are us. Just us, but a little more sage-like, right? Yeah. Period.