When reflecting on my life, I see two people; these two people differ physically and mentally. I think of my life split into two time periods, B.C. (before cancer) and the A.D. (after diagnosis). I believe that cancer changed me in the most positive way possible, it completely changed my social identity. I never felt a part of a single group B.C.; I fit in with the jocks, the academically focused students, the popular kids, the losers, etc. I felt as if I floated from group to group, which had positive and negative effects on my self-esteem. It seemed at times I was stretched too thin and never really owned or was consumed by one group entirely. I felt like cancer came into my life for a reason, my purpose and existence here. Cancer found me.
While I always thought of myself very independent, I never used words such as confident or proud when asked about myself B.C. Throughout my academic career society pushed me to conform one way. A lot of this came from my family and environment, needing to be both academically and athletically acceptable. I identified myself as academically successful, taking all honors and advanced placement courses, and athletically successful, making varsity volleyball, varsity basketball, and taking statistics for my varsity baseball team. But I never felt emotionally connected to those groups, never pride or honor to associate myself wholeheartedly being a jock or scholar. Who would have thought a horrible disease would be the answer I was looking for, a truly life changing experience was necessary for me to find where I belonged.
One of my all time favorite quotes “You know my name, not my story. You’ve heard what I’ve done, not what I’ve been through” perfectly illustrates my emotions when on the topic of cancer. The immense sympathy given to cancer patients is in my opinion belittling and frustrating. Cancer is an ugly disease but is filled with the most beautiful people you will ever come in contact with. The perceptions people have on the cancer community are ones filled with despair and hopelessness when in contrast it is the exact opposite. When I was diagnosed I felt a spark ignite within my soul, determination that fueled my right to live, and enlightenment in the world around me. I was no longer given the privilege everyday to wake up and complain about mundane problems of life and was faced with the reality that every moment and memory was a blessing. Bad news would turn into bad days but my ability to look at the positives and move on in life grew as I evolved into not a new person, only a better version of myself.
Expectations of cancer patients seem to include the following: weak, sick, unhappy, life-deprived, bald, pale, etc. These are obviously not the case. It seems the only way to be seen affected by cancer is in physical ways, to be bald, pale, and overall sickly; when in fact I personally did not lose my hair until a few treatments in, maintained a nice tan throughout, and my body stayed relatively the same built. Until my third round of chemotherapy I was not identified in the cancer group to outsiders, when one looked at me I looked “normal”. Why did physical requirements need to be met to be able to be placed in a group? Both pity and ignorant thoughts only occurred once I physically looked the part, the empathetic and confused stares begun once the hair fell. A group I was mistakenly placed in commonly was the rebel or rocker type; on many occasions I was called out for having such short hair for a women. Once again I was faced with questioning why physical appearance coincided so heavily with ones identity. At first I struggled with the thought of this physical change, but once the event actually occurred and I saw the hair fall to the floor, I knew it was an experience that would only make me stronger. The other emotional and mental expectations of cancer patients could not be any further from reality too. Cancer cannot take away your right to live; you must fight for and stay focused on life. It cannot erase love, whether it is for an individual or activity. You can still live life to the fullest, even though some change must be made, this does not have to hinder your overall view of life. The stereotype placed with cancer patients being depressed and all the same could not be any more false, each individual has their own story and experiences with the disease. Side effects for one individual were certainly not the case for all, differing the mental state each person possessed.
I came to find out just how beautiful people affected by cancer were through my experience at Camp Mak-A-Dream, a week of my life I wish I could replay over and over again. It was here the stigma of the girl with cancer was lifted for a week and medical problems were soon forgotten as I connected on a level I did not think was humanly possible in such a short period of time. The shocked stares were temporarily replaced with acceptance and true understanding of what I was going through. It was here I learned the true literacy I now was apart of. Medical terms, complicated procedures, and daily struggles of this life style were casual conversations in an inviting environment. It was here that I also truly understood cancer does not discriminate in any way, shape, or form. Any race, gender, or age was effected by this disease and it was peace of mind that if were all in it together then no one was alone.
If society listened to only the perceptions and expectations given to cancer patients then they would miss out entirely on the truth that lies behind it. They would miss the opportunity to meet the strongest and most inspirational people out there. Another favorite quote, “You were given this life because you were strong enough to live it” captures my thoughts on survivors, a secondary group within the cancer identity I placed myself in. Although I do not only view survivors as living through cancer, I define survivors as those individuals that decided to take their life in their own hands, those who don’t back down in the face of death, and those who have the power to change others. In my mind this identity stands as a social elite and I think of myself as extremely fortunate to be able to be apart of it. Survivors have tasted the deepest depths of life and been able to climb out on top. They have felt the lowest lows of existence and reached the highest and ultimate prize of continuing a better person. Although their journey to outsiders seems to end once their body is wiped clean of the cancer, their world has forever been changed; the memories and experiences stay fresh in the mind even when the scars fade and hair grows back. Survivors are left with the aftermath just as with a storm, the mixed emotions of months upon months finally coming to closure. The eternal victory over life itself is one be to enjoyed, but most survivors won’t tell you the agony and fear they posses of the disease returning. This brings me to my final thought on my identity I now possess, I know now what comes after my physical appearance returns to “normal”. When the treatments and medicine routines end, and hair grows back I will forever be classified as a cancer fighter and survivor. Cancer is part of my past, present, and future.