January 18, 2010

Handling Cancer, Illness, and Wedding Season?

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I love weddings (almost obsessively so) and am thrilled for anyone who is currently engaged.  But, sometimes it is damn hard dealing with wedding planning season when you’ve got cancer or a chronic illness.

Being single with cancer and no date at my brother’s wedding was hard.  I was in the midst of breaking up with a guy who couldn’t say the word “cancer”.  I was so happy for my brother and didn’t want to feel like a self-pitying sister or that I was detracting from his moment.  I tried to keep my mouth shut about it all.  I also dreaded all of the guests telling me how grrrreat I looked in that wacko-cancer-pity-adoration way.  But for all of my angst leading up to it, I decided to go totally solo, not even bring a friend date and it was the most fun wedding I’ve been to.

When it rolled around to my own wedding a few years later, I thought hard about whether at I would thank the people in my life who have been there for me during “hard times” (code words for “cancer”.)  I decided to thank people for other things, that cancer didn’t belong at my wedding.  But sometimes it isn’t possible to compartmentalize life like that; life just bleeds on through.   It’s challenging to hide baldness at a wedding or scars decorating your body.  And you can’t hide your absence at a wedding because you were too sick to go.

It’s hard to transition from staring death in the face to embracing unlimited love. Take for example Dana, a leukemia patient in my book Everything Changes, who said: “At my rehearsal dinner, I went into a bathroom stall and sobbed my eyes out. I could not believe I was at my own rehearsal dinner after everything that I went through. My friend came into the stall and sat with me. I just needed her to be there while I got it all out. It was like I suppressed all of these feelings because they were too big for my brain. It was like, ‘Look at where I’m at, I’m alive, I’ve met this man.’ I had to let them out.”

Wedding budgets, gifts, puking on your bouquet.  As a bride, groom, member of the wedding, or just a guest, what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced because of your  illness?  Do you have any weddings coming up this year?

Read about being engaged with cancer in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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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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