Cancer is not an identity or a label.
In my time dealing with cancer, I've discovered that not only is cancer an illness, but it is often used as an identifier as well. After diagnosis, women are referred to as breast cancer survivors. If a woman is diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic breast cancer, she is referred to as terminal. It's as if the cancer becomes an integral part of a person's identity. We are no longer just wives, mothers, co-workers, daughters, sisters or nieces. We are "the niece with cancer," "the co-worker who is dying," "the sister who is a breast cancer survivor."
In the metastatic breast cancer community, women debate what to call themselves. They don't feel comfortable with the “survivor” label since that is so often associated with the pink world that you'll be okay and breast cancer is curable. It is not, especially for the 30 percent of us who will later move on to deadly stage 4. Knowing we won't survive it, many with metastatic cancer insist upon being called a metavivor, someone who is continuing on in spite of a stage 4 diagnosis.
For me though, as I've continued down this road of dealing with metastatic breast cancer, I've found that I never wanted to be a cancer survivor, a cancer thriver, a cancer metavivor or a cancer anything at all.
I am not a label. I refuse to live my life that way. I am Susan. I have brown hair, hazel eyes, a kind heart, a wicked sense of humor and I also happen to have metastatic breast cancer. Like diabetes, arthritis and heart disease, it is merely a medical condition I have, not a part of my name. I am not cancer Susan, dying Susan, or metastatic Susan. I am just Susan.
I understand where the tendency for labels comes from. Cancer is a nasty disease. The disease and its treatment tears people apart physically, causes tragic levels of pain and the associated treatment costs bankrupt many struggling to pay the resulting medical bills. Cancer is so looming in its destruction; people often see only the cancer rather than the person.
So-and-so has cancer? Everyone begins to talk about that person in hushed tones. “Oh, poor Ruby. She’s a goner.” The assumption and the association are easy to make.
But here's the deal. I am getting married in July, and my cancer has nothing to do with my engagement. My fiancé, Jeff, was attracted to my humor and my spirit, not the cancer I happen to host. Jeff decided I was someone he wanted to spend his life with, so he asked me to marry him. I said yes. He knew about the cancer. He knows how metastatic cancer works. He asked me to marry him, not the cancer. So I am just like any bride. I want to celebrate this wonderful union with this incredible man who has chosen me and whom I have chosen back.
But still, the labels persist. From the aunt who congratulated me on my engagement and then immediately told me about an in-law of hers whose cancer is so bad he is stopping treatment, to the friend who told me that in spite of my stage 4 cancer, I get to celebrate milestones too. All of these responses wrap me and my wedding in cancer. It's as if all of my life has cancer, not just a part of my body.
This is not a cancer wedding. This is my wedding. So even if I hobble down the aisle, my chemo wig askew, dragging an IV pole, I want everyone, including myself, to pretend I don’t have cancer. Look past the IV pole and look at me, the bride. Look at me holding hands with my love, committing my life and my love to him. I am not a cancer bride. I am a bride named Susan. And on my wedding day I will eat cake, dance, hold my new husband and let him hold me, and celebrate. And I will thank God that I am alive.