December 04, 2009

How Has Your Identity As A Cancer Patient Changed?

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It’s time to clean out my cancer closet.  Between living with cancer for nine years and researching and writing a book on young adult cancer for five years, I’ve accumulated an abundance of oncology articles, books, and magazines.

The task is more emotional than I anticipated.  Lodged in my collection of scientific data are notes I scribbled in the margins, like: “None of these stats apply to me. Is it time to abandon Western medicine?” I’m still am not cured.  Thankfully I have learned how to manage my cancer better now than when I wrote that note.  None the less, it’s sad reading my paper trail of desperation.

It’s hard getting rid of my books on palliative and end of life care.  They were invaluable in helping me write resource sections for Everything Changes.  A loud voice says, “Hang on to these Kairol, you might need them someday for your own care.”  Cleaning my cancer closet is highlighting that over the past two years, I’ve come to expect that I am going to get a secondary form of cancer.  I hope I am wrong.  I don’t get worked up about it.  But it’s a thought I can’t shake.

Some survivors make scrapbooks about their treatment.  When I last  moved apartments, I culled my collection of get well cards from a  mountainous box to one manila envelop. I might even want to ditch that now too.  Over time, I cling less to my cancer memorabilia.  Yet, I still commemorate my cancer care almost daily through my writing.

I like my perspectives on cancer care.  I want to continue blogging, writing columns, speaking, and working on special projects with organizations. But lately I’m making a shift from having two feet in the cancer world to one foot in and one foot out.  For example, at the end of this month, I’m stepping down as co-host on The Stupid Cancer Show.

My identity as a cancer patient is shifting.  It isn’t easy.  But it is good.  Growing pains are better than cancer pain.

How much do you want to remember you cancer care and how much do you want to move on?  Do you save research information or get well cards?  Do you ever anticipate getting a secondary form of cancer?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to learn how Geoff’s identity changed as a 13 year survivor diagnosed at 22.

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August 28, 2009

Did You Reinvent Your Identity to Accommodate Illness?

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In 10th grade chemistry I created 40 phonetic spellings of my first name, chose Kairol, and it stuck. (I was born with the Mrs. Brady spelling. And yes, in 1987 you coul make up whatever name you wanted and slap it on a drivers license.)

So, I got curious when I recently learned Matthew Zachary, founder of I’m Too Young For This, is actually named Matthew Greenzweig. He developed Matthew Zachary as an alter ego after treatment. Here’s what he told me:

“When I was a senior in college, I was a concert pianist diagnosed with brain cancer. They said I’d never play again. I had horrific radiation, was so depressed, and thrown into the lion’s den of trying to figure out what happens to your life after treatment. That was the story of Matthew Greenzweig’s life and it was uncomfortable to be him.

I needed to reinvent myself. I taught myself how to use my left hand again and to play piano. I used my middle name ‘Zachary’ as my stage name. It was an identity created out of desperation; I was refusing to let cancer define me. My chaos, grief, and anger got channeled through the anchor of my pseudonym.”

Like Matthew, I messed with my identity during treatment by changing the way I dressed. I created outrageous pseudo-couture outfits from thrift store finds and wore CFM heels to the supermarket. It helped to feel more like Carrie Bradshaw and less like Kairol Rosenthal.  (Funny that my current wardrobe consists of sweatpants and hoodies –I should be thrown to Stacy and Clinton.)

As my cancer has lingered, I’ve switched careers from a choreographer and to a writer. Living with incurable cancer, I feel more comfortable holed up in the contemplative den of my apartment, living the writer’s life. If I had a choice, I would rather something less painful than young adult cancer as the catalyst for a career change, but here I am. And I’m pretty damn comfortable with my identity.

Illness changes many parts of our identity over which we have no control – becoming a bald woman, someone who can no longer work, who cannot conceive children… But, have you ever responded to illness with a temporary or permanent identity change that you do have control over?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to find out why Nora wore her Chrissy Hynde wig long after her hair grew back, and Mary Ann started dressing in outfits that made her feel like a lobbyist.

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