A breast cancer survivor learns to shed her old identity and adapt to her new one.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
For the past three years, breast cancer has become my identity. Although I’d never have chosen this persona, it chose me.
Even before I had confirmation of its existence, a cancerous tumor had developed, dug in and set down roots. It had no intention of leaving. It was perfectly happy. As it grew deep inside my breast, I never felt it until it was about the size of a grape.
Once exposed, the cancer fought hard and even after removal, it began to assert its rights. The takeover happened gradually. It was quite polite, waiting for me to relinquish control, which I did without thinking, much to my chagrin. The more of my identity that I released, the more cancer took.
Cloaked in fear, I was unaware how much of me began to slip away.
The first day after surgery, I took ownership of my new identity. I was a cancer victim and cancer survivor. Now, instead of the ugly disease living inside me, it twined around me coiling tighter with each passing day.
Although the very essence of its being had been cut out of my body, its intentional grip on my life had not been removed. I carried my new identity wherever I went. I was unhealthy. I was no longer whole.
It seemed the cancer identity was growing stronger and taking over, just like a creature from a Sci-Fi movie. Mild mannered me was gradually being overshadowed and consumed. It was easy to forget who I was.
Little by little I felt myself slipping away. It was the strangest thing. Doctors, tests and treatments were fuel. With every visit, I felt my cancer identity grow. At first, it gave me new significance. I wasn’t just an average woman. I was part of a pink sisterhood, a special cancer sorority. It felt good to belong, although the membership stakes were high.
Then, I became a huge bore. Whenever friends or family were around, the topic of conversation inevitably revolved around my cancer. Although I didn’t like my new identity, it was who I’d become.
Well-meaning loved ones bought in and fed the addiction of my new identity. My home became filled with cancer items such as survivor bracelets, pink ribbon pins and warrior t-shirts. I was a poster child for breast cancer. The me I used to be was non-existent.
Cancer was stealthy. It robbed me of confidence and self-esteem. Once self-assured and brave, I was now timid and shy.
I became agoraphobic. I found security in my home, my safe place. I labeled myself a "hot pink mess," and I was. I knew I was not cancer, but cancer had become me. No matter how hard I tried to break free, I couldn't. I didn’t know how to get out from under the breast cancer label.
One day, a thought crossed my mind: If I could hear the doctors say I was cancer free, perhaps I could slip out from under the veil of cancer. Maybe then I could return to my previous life and reconnect with the old me.
The more I thought about it, the more I discovered I was being unrealistic. Cancer was now forever part of me. It would be too difficult for us to separate. It would always be part of my life even if I was declared NED (no evidence of disease).
I accepted the fact that it would probably be part of my "new normal" and the label of cancer survivor would always be mine, but I’ve grown quite tired of it. I want to move on. I want to leave cancer behind. But how do I transition? All I’ve known for the last few years is cancer.
How do I return to my pre-cancerous life? Do I pack up all of my pink ribbon paraphernalia and toss it out? Even if I get rid of all my cancer reminders, I can never get rid of all evidence of my cancer identity like the long horizontal scar across my chest, my radiation burns and my lymphedema. I can never shed the emotional trauma and the physical pain I’ve endured.
But I can reinvent myself. I can adopt a new identity. Instead of clinging to my cancer identity, the old, traumatized, unhealthy me, I want to emerge stronger and better. Just like a lovely butterfly breaking free from a chrysalis. My current struggle is over. The hard part is done. I’ve fought a good fight and I’ve won. It does take some breaking for wholeness to occur, doesn’t it?
Finishing treatment is strange. I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff about to be pushed off and there’s no safety net beneath me. For the past three years, I’ve had the constant companionship of medical staff. Their watchful eye has kept me confident. It almost feels like I’ve been on stage giving the most difficult performance of my life.
Now, the applause has faded and the auditorium has emptied. I’m stepping off the brightly lit stage into the vast unknown.
As I walk down those dark steps, I feel I’ve been through enough trauma. I’ve given cancer too much power over my life. It’s time to reclaim what was lost. It’s time for something good to happen to me.
The old me is still in there somewhere. I’m going to work hard to rediscover her. It’s time to start remembering who I was before cancer and who I’ve become after cancer. If I can figure out a way to mesh the two, I think I’ll be able to reinvent myself and become the best me yet.
In all honesty, I do have to admit cancer has improved my identity in some ways. It has made me realize I am stronger than I ever thought possible. It has given me the attributes of perseverance, patience and endurance. For that, I am grateful.
The more I think about it, the more I realize cancer may not have necessarily stolen my identity but instead has reshaped and improved it. What an interesting thought to think a disease had the power to remold my life in a positive way.
In the movie "Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End," Jack Sparrow, the character played by actor Johnny Depp, shares a profound statement. He says, "Death has a curious way of shuffling one’s priorities."
Breast cancer certainly took me to the very brink of death and helped shift my perspective on life. Yes, my identity has changed drastically and I must give credit where credit is due. Thank you, cancer.
My new priority is accepting my current self. I no longer want my old identity. I’m grateful for my new one.