When cancer tries to steal your identity

Being consumed by ‘illness identity’ and beyond.

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  1. Cancer tries to take it all
  2. How cancer tries to steal your identity
  3. How you frame your experience
  4. As time passes
  5. A change in outlook

Cancer tries to take it all

Witnessing the terminal decline of my loved one from cancer was like living every day in the silent vacuum of a recently exploded lethal bomb.

The days were spent picking our way through the rubble of our lives helplessly discovering ever more damaged pieces.

Cancer was trying to destroy everything.

We now lived day to day in a blurred, surreal world, completely unconscious and deafened to the everyday lives of others continuing outside our door.

However, for us on the inside, there were a few moments of lucid numbness which stood out.

This particular day was the day when my husband came out of the bathroom and admitted that he barely recognized himself in the mirror.

Devastatingly he and I both knew it was true; cancer had reduced him to being a shell of his former self.

What cancer and its treatment had done to my husband over the last few months was truly shocking, although in that moment I tried to control my reaction and play down my sadness.

When they say that cancer tries to take it all, I didn’t realize that it meant even your very identity was for the taking.

How cancer tries to steal your identity

Before cancer you probably thought about yourself in terms of the roles and relationships, hobbies and interests you valued most in your life.

For example, you were; a wife, mother, career-driven, dog-lover, gardener and good friend.

Or perhaps you were; a husband, retired professional, golfer, sociable and a great cook.

Now looking at yourself in the mirror it is hard to ignore what is going on inside your body, as your concept of self now changes to unfortunately include this unwelcome disease in the picture.

Becoming a cancer patient

Cancer will try to steal your identity by eroding your self-concept and trying to destroy you quite literally from the inside out.

Changes every day can be felt not only to your roles and relationships at home and at work but also to your ability to function at the same capacity as before.

How closely you identify with being ‘a cancer patient’ will be in a constant state of flux as you move through the various treatments and emerge the other side having to deal with lingering side effects.

All you can do is watch as cancer and its treatment redefine you from the outside in.

As you lose weight, perhaps your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, it becomes ever harder to recognize your own reflection.

Your emotional state is left rocked, your self-esteem takes a hit and the cracks in your foundation begin to influence your life and affect your relationships.

Long treatment protocols pull you away from work, side effects or even a change in personal outlook can impact your career, then your finances, over the long-term.

It is easy to become dominated by cancer. You feel saturated by stress and the very essence of who you are rendered overwhelmed.

Your entire being is under threat. You realize that cancer is trying to steal your identity.

Yet in the wake of devastation, a strength you didn’t even know you had, is awoken.

A steely resilience emerges and in satisfying defiance you actually feel strengthened by cancer.

Despite everything, you know that you can take charge of how you want this to go.

You have the control to play this one out in whatever way you want.

How you frame your experience

Despite how you or others see your post-cancer self, it is up to you how to react and move forward.

It is true that there will be no one way to define yourself after cancer has come into your life.

Your needs will change from diagnosis through survivorship and so will how closely aligned you feel to this ‘illness identity’.

There will be good days and bad. Days which you feel in control, ‘healthy’, positive and strong. Other days side effects such as nausea and fatigue can drag you back down and forcing you to seek out a hasty retreat under the covers for safety.

Yet, you have faced the fear of this life-threatening disease, suffered the consequences of this life-altering illness and are now out the other side.

Stronger, more resilient, a survivor.

The confidence you can take from that can be a very powerful internal resource you can endlessly rely upon throughout your ongoing recovery.

As time passes

Choosing how to go on living your life with a history of cancer will be another challenge to negotiate and overcome.

In survival you face the task of having to find yourself again and rediscover who you are now that you have overcome such a huge life change.

In the aftermath of cancer treatment, it can be a struggle to understand who you are now, never mind appreciate who you once were before cancer happened.

Looking back to the time before cancer tried to steal your identity, it may be difficult to even remember your pre-cancer self.

Before cancer

In time, as your strength grows, you may want to distance yourself from your ‘story’.

You feel like you want to forget the whole thing, turn the page or even close the book on cancer.

You don’t want to be defined by cancer any more. You are tired of being looked at differently, pitied and given special considerations.

You may feel lost as to how to do this until you regain some of the energy and strength you once had. Only then will you be able to decide who you now are after cancer.

Most likely there will come a time when you feel like separating yourself from being a cancer patient or survivor.

The impulse overtakes you to re-write the label of ‘cancer survivor’ life demanded you to wear.

This disease has tried for too long to define all you and your achievements.

You need a fresh start and want to live a fulfilled life post cancer, without having to always look back.

In fact, distancing yourself from the disease will be an important part of your recovery.

This will be the moment in which you will develop a more accurate sense of self and restore your new and true identity moving forward in life.

A change in outlook

Life post-cancer may very well not ever be the same, but there are lots of positives to be sought from this experience.

In order to move on in an optimistic way, accepting the fact that this life experience has re-shaped you and has left you as a person forever changed is important.

You now have an opportunity to re-build your life and re-create it in whatever way you want. It is your choice, your post-cancer entitlement.

Being honest and truthful with yourself is the very least you deserve.

How will you plot your escape to freedom from the cancer world?

Which path will you choose?

Even if you don’t know yet, by simply putting one foot in front of the other, each and every day, you will find your way forward, distancing yourself from cancer with every step.

Which parts of your former life do you want to keep and return to?

Are there aspects which you now want to change or cut out of your life?

Take the time you need to reflect and consider such identity-defining decisions.

Although it can hurt to look back, when you miss who you used to be, you can find comfort in the fact that you have grown into a more reinforced version of your new self.

Having lived through everything you will have gained such resilience and strength to be able to take on and cope with far more in life than you previously could have thought.

You didn’t want this to happen or even want an opportunity for personal development, but this new found capacity to bounce back from adversity in life is the one side effect of cancer you can easily live with!

Many are grateful for the new perspective on life surviving cancer will bring.

Having lived through the experience of a life-threatening disease and witnessing lower lows than many others, you have to believe that the highs will ultimately be higher.

You have been to hell and come back to live your post-cancer life on new terms, following new rules.

You are now more mindful, focused and determined.

Time with family and friends is treasured, opportunities are rarely wasted.

Petty arguments don’t happen and stressing over the small stuff seems oh so trivial.

You love and show love more freely, hating anything seems like a waste of energy and forgiving becomes slightly easier.

Time is no longer taken for granted.

With regained purpose, renewed drive you now are a player in your own life; enjoyment and fulfillment are prioritized and acted upon.

You can now see more clearly what matters to you most.

A realization dawns that cancer has actually given you a stronger sense of identity.

You now have more accurate sense of who you are and what you want out of life.

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Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

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