August 28, 2009

Did You Reinvent Your Identity to Accommodate Illness?


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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May 06, 2009

Cancer vs. PETA


I have a horrible history of arguing with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocates, like the big Foie Gras debate in Central Park where the PETA volunteer almost clobbered me with her clipboard.

I now have another beef to pick with PETA. (Would you ever know that when I was diagnosed with cancer I had already been vegetarian for 14 years, vegan for seven? I do love cows and geese, it’s just these wactivists are absurd!)

According to the blog Disruptive Women in Healthcare, PETA is sending letters to the CEOs of major hospitals urging them to reduce their carbon footprint by eliminating meat as an option to patients, visitors and employees. I like the response of Glenna Crooks, the blogger who posted the story. She argued that transitions to meat free diets take time for our bodies and schedules to adjust to, and there is a learning curve for educating oneself about proper vegetarian nutrition.

I agree with Glenna. During and after a hospital stay is not the right time to throw another wrench into a patient’s already complex and life altering care plan. Hell, if some of us in cancer treatment or after surgery can manage to swallow a bite of boiled chicken or sip beef bullion, it is cause for a celebration not a PETA demonstration.

Hospitals should try to reduce their carbon footprint, but they should look to The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as an example of how to do so through adopting energy efficiency standards.

Are you, were you, or would you ever be vegetarian or vegan? Do you think it is a good idea for hospitals to impose that dietary choice upon patients? What food worked best for you during cancer or other illnesses and could you have gotten by without a bowl of chicken soup?

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