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Tips on Avoiding the Cancer Identity Trap

A cancer diagnosis can threaten to shake our understanding of who we are if we let it. Learn how to avoid this trap with some practical advice.
PUBLISHED September 05, 2018
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.

There's a lot of symbolism in Lewis Carroll's, “Alice in Wonderland.” In the story, poor little Alice struggles to understand her identity. After falling down the rabbit hole, she enters a strange, mixed up world of make-believe. Unsure of herself, she tries over and over again to be the Alice she always knew she had been.

As Alice travels through Wonderland, she meets many unique creatures and has conversations with them. When she meets a strange looking caterpillar, he questions her identity. "Who are you?" said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I - I hardly know, Sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."

"What do you mean by that?" said the Caterpillar, sternly. "Explain yourself!"

"I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir," said Alice, "because I am not myself, you see." (Excerpt from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol, Chapter 5)

Over and over again, throughout the story, Alice is confronted with various identity issues. As she confronts each one, she becomes stronger and stronger until she finally realizes exactly who she is and at that point, she's able to leave Wonderland and return home.

Many of us can relate to the story of Alice in Wonderland. Each of us struggles with our identities at some point in our lives. As young children, we flounder trying to understand who we are. We look to those closest to us as our personalities form and our belief systems are established. In our teen years, our identities fall subject to peer pressure, but as we grow older and experience life, the identity puzzle takes shape and by the time we're adults, we have a good understanding of our identity. For those with cancer, identity can feel threatened as control over simple things is lost. The crisis can grow out of control if left unchecked.

As cancer assaults the physical body, a person with cancer may begin to feel the vibrations of shaky ground. The surety of one's identity can come into question as the cancer ride speeds rapidly downhill, but it isn't an absolute that a person with cancer will suffer an identity crisis. There are steps to take in order to avoid this all too common pitfall.

Step one is to ask the question, "Who am I?" Be truthful and honest as you answer the question. The way you see yourself allows you to examine who you are and more importantly create who you want to be. Avoid allowing cancer to take over your identity. Cancer is a disease. It is not your identity.

Another way a person can avoid being caught in the cancer identity trap is to consciously remember who they were before cancer entered their lives. Just like Alice remembered her true identity when she confronted the Queen of Hearts, it's important to think back and remember yourself pre-cancer.

Just because a disease comes knocking on the door, does a life necessarily become drastically changed? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always. Taking time to hold tightly to identity can actually help with the ability to get through cancer. For example, if a person fails to remember how resilient she was before cancer, she may find herself struggling to keep her head above water when things get tough.

It's important to know yourself. Take inventory of strengths and weaknesses. Use them to your advantage.

Cancer, no doubt will change you in some ways, perhaps your body will look differently or maybe your outlook will shift, but underneath it all, you're still the same person you were before you were diagnosed. You're still the same wonderful, one of a kind, you.

So how does a person with identity issues figure out who she is after cancer? Alice's conversation with the Cheshire cat might offer some helpful information:

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where - " said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

" - so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." (Excerpt from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, chapter 6)

You have the power to choose who you'll be after a cancer diagnosis. Will you remain the same person you were before cancer or will you allow your identity to change? It's your choice.

Don't make the mistake Alice did. Don't pretend to someone you're not. "But it's no use now," thought poor Alice, "to pretend to be two people! Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!"

The best tip I can offer would be to remember it's impossible to go backward in life. Alice said it best when she said, "But it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." And you were, too. You will never be the same again but even though that's a factual statement, your identity doesn't have to change unless you want it to. Cancer can't steal who you are or who you will be unless you let it.

None of us escape cancer unscathed. It is a life-changing and life-altering disease, but allowing it to become our identity is not an option. We're all too precious and too different to live within the confines of the world of cancer. We can't afford to give it the power to rob us of our identities.


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