Does having cancer change you? It certainly brings a lot of changes. It can slow you down, make you stop working, steal your energy. It can change your routine, your habits, your diet. It can renew your perspective, make you more introspective, make you feel bolder, or make you feel weaker. It might make you feel differently about your body; trust it less, listen to it more, look at it less critically, or more critically. It changes how you feel about your hair, too – both when it goes and when it comes back. It can teach you to lean on people, to not always have to be strong, or to be stronger. It can drive you to do more, or it can drive you under the duvet.
We go through these changes, some of them or all of them, and many more. The changes might be temporary – the energy returns, you emerge from under the duvet, you can eat again, you can use shampoo again.
But does having cancer change who we are? I don’t know. When I was first diagnosed this was one of the things I feared most – that cancer would change me, or change the way the world saw and treated me. That it would insinuate itself into my identity. I didn’t want to be “that girl with cancer.” Nobody wants to have cancer, and I certainly didn’t want it to become any part of what defines me.
But now, more than a year after that lumpy little interloper popped up in my left breast, I see it a little differently. It’s like cancer takes the essence of who you are and exposes it to light, puts it under stress, and shakes it around in a beaker. Then it adds a whole bunch of things to you that weren’t there before – reckoning with your own mortality, for example – and lets those things react and settle. Cancer distills you. You’re still made of the same basic ingredients, but you may be a little more potent. Less like aging wine and more like making moonshine.
Not that I want to be thought of as bathtub gin — or god forbid, hooch – but it sure beats being “that girl with cancer.”