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Defined By Cancer

I frequently read or hear this declaration issued by survivors who have moved on with their lives, at their own pace and purpose, even in the face of uncertainty:

“I am not defined by cancer.”

Of course, I understand and respect this… I just wonder if it is truly possible.

Most people who receive a cancer diagnosis want to undergo successful treatment, experience a complete and durable remission, and get on with their lives. The last thing they want is to be identified, let alone exclusively defined by the disease.

Defined By Patronization

Putting yourself out there with a cancer diagnosis can be all-consuming. If you have lots of social connections, it can take a lot of energy just to keep up with all the concerns and anxieties of well-intentioned family, friends, and colleagues.

Patronization is a well-known negative aspect of survivorship; time spent assuaging the fears and concerns of others.

“How are you feeling?”

Though well meaning, the repetitious inquiries, sometimes over years on end, can be aggravating. They make for awkward moments, and add an extra layer of ‘work’ within social interaction.

This phenomenon can make a person not want to share a diagnosis, let alone the journey. One can be labeled ‘helpless victim’ through the eyes of others.

Defined By Social Isolation

At the other end of the scale of having people continuously inquire about your situation sits the dilemma of not having anyone show his or her concern. Social isolation is a topic unto itself.

The effects of lifestyles that are punctuated by not having a support system—living in isolation—has been associated with tumor growth for several types of cancer, including: breast, lung, and rectal. There are various reasons for social isolation, most obvious being geographic remoteness from family, and lack of access to local social connections.

We are still learning about the negative impact social isolation has on patient outcomes. What’s undeniable is that quality community and social connection during the cancer journey is profoundly important and therapeutic. In the near future I plan to write more deeply on this subject, and its connection to creating one’s A-Team—a survivor’s ideal small go-to support group.

Defined By Socio-Economic Parameters

Economics, livelihood, perception, and privacy play a part in each person’s life. With cancer, there is an attached stigma to each of these categories; an extra layer of stressful circumstances.

Cancer can devastate family finances and threaten one’s current employment situation.

Those looking for employment are at economic risk when being forthcoming about their plight. When an employer considers two finalists—candidates of similar experience and success—and learns that one is a survivor—regardless of the specifics—it can tip the balance in favor of the so-called ‘healthier’ non-cancer applicant. It doesn’t seem fair, but is also not too difficult to understand from an employer’s perspective. This is a situation where ‘less’ (not divulging) is definitely ‘more’ from an applicant’s perspective.

I’ve coached folks from all walks of life—from stay at home parents, and retirees, to those reentering the workplace or anticipating promotions. I’ve also coached those in prominent positions: CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, who have opted to keep their cancer diagnosis from business contacts, Wall Street, their leadership teams, and from their rank and file employees. They want no part of being defined by others.

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Defined by Secrecy

There are survivors—more than you might imagine—who do not share their cancer stories with colleagues, friends, or even family. I was taken aback the first time I coached a client who said he’d told only his wife about his illness. He had not shared the news with his adult children, parents, or any other family members.

And he is not alone. I see this often. Personally, I could not imagine a situation where I kept such a secret from the ones I love. But that’s me. We are all different.

I work regularly with survivors who have a real need, for myriad reasons, to keep their situation private. On the one hand they might like to yell from the tree tops, “Hey, I have cancer and this is how I am approaching the challenges of my condition.” But, more pragmatically (in their estimation), they feel confidentiality is beneficial.

We each have the right to move on from a cancer diagnosis, get on with living our lives, and never give cancer another thought. It does not own us. It need not fully define us.   

I Am Defined By Cancer… By Choice

When I was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1991, cancer still had a significant stigma attached to it. This was similar to the ongoing twisted version of shame that is currently way too prevalent in how mental health issues are viewed.

Personally, I am defined by cancer. By choice. But not exclusively so.

Is this a bad thing?

I’ve been a survivor for almost half my life. Early on, cancer greatly shifted my perspective. It took me by the hand and led me toward a life much different to the trajectory on which I was headed when diagnosed at 28.

Post-diagnosis, my priorities changed—from working to acquire materialistic stuff to tripling down on health, healing, and quality of life.

Relationships and family mattered more. My wife of two years—she’d been a close friend for over 20 years—was already the center of my life—but Linda became even more important to my day-to-day being.

I was running a business when diagnosed. It was growing quickly. I had employees—good people who had spouses, children, and mortgages. I could have chucked it all away and simply sold the company. After all, my cancer was not ‘curable’.  Why would I work until the very end?

Honestly, I did not have the same level of fire-in-the-belly entrepreneurial spirit as before my diagnosis. I found that my threshold for risk was lower. I was too focused on the future and, candidly, fear of the unknown. But I decided to keep moving, being as productive as possible in all areas of my life. Because of that, I would go on to be blessed with two incredible sons.

I am defined by cancer in that all that I have learned over the decades has provided me with information and important tools that can be helpful to others. It has also made me a better person. It has certainly shaped my life purpose.

Defined By Choice and Proactivity

A cancer journey itself should not exclusively become the ‘thing’ for which you are identified.  Your connection to the experience need not be telegraphed to others, nor does it have to be hidden from all.

It is up to you to decide if, and how, the challenge of cancer expresses aspects of your character, your relationships, and your core being. It is through that expression that your choices inform your goals and dreams.