We don't much think about – or, perhaps, it is I who has not done so – who we are. What descriptions we have of ourselves accumulate, I think, over our lifetimes and we hardly notice it happening: doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, mother, father, brother, sister, fat, skinny, young, old, married, single and so on.
For example, since in the United States we mostly identify ourselves with what we are paid money to do, I am a former radio producer, TV producer, internet news managing editor, New Yorker morphed now into a retiree who blogs about what it's like to be old and who, way near the top of the list, thinks of herself as healthy.
No more. Last June, “cancer patient” was added to my list of personal descriptors, something I see in retrospect was an easier change to make than I would have thought.
All it takes is a massive surgery and lengthy recovery period accompanied by pain, pills and doctor visits to self-identify as a sick person Or, at minimum, no longer healthy.
I didn't see it coming, didn't even notice, consciously, that the switch had happened until this week. One way I suspect that happens is the medical checklist.
When you have a serious ongoing disease, you are asked to fill out a lot of forms. They are mostly identical and involve checking yes or no on long, long lists of diseases, conditions and symptoms. I've checked off no in all of them all my life. And then eight months ago, I had to check yes on cancer.
I was not healthy anymore. As I may have related to you in the past, a more light-hearted take on the issue was spoken by my primary care physician: “Ronni,” he said, “except for the cancer, you're very healthy.”
Riiiiight – and other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play. That doctor and I have had several good laughs about his bon mot gone awry.
Who we are in our minds, in our bones, affects how we understand ourselves, present ourselves to the world and informs many of the choices we make. Cancer patient is not what I want to be part of my self-image but it happened.
Then, this week, another change took place. On Monday, I had a CT scan, a more definitive test for cancer cells than the test I told you about a couple of weeks ago. Like that first test, this one came back with the best news any cancer patient can hope for:
“CT looks good,” wrote my medical oncologist in her test results analysis. “There is no sign of the cancer at this time.”
That's two tests two weeks apart with the same great, good news. Only a tiny minority of pancreatic cancer patients get this far so I should be ecstatic.
How come I'm not, then?
Intellectually, I'm over the moon but the the thought lacks the emotional joy I expected, the urge to dance around the house, for example, to Joe Cocker's Cry Me a River at full volume.
Instead, even if I am not shrugging off the news, my mind slipped straight into anticipation of the apprehension I felt this time as I waited for the test results that will be repeated every four months or so when they continue to check for cancer. What is the matter with me?
Here's what I think happened:
That added definition of sickly person crept up on me so quietly I hardly noticed it these past months. Even as I have felt increasingly better physically, the daily pills, the chemo treatments, the blood tests, the transfusions along with the many doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers all became silent markers of my new status which I internalized without any thought, made part of my self-image.
While I wasn't paying attention, I became a different person than I have known for my 76 years, someone identified by a terrible disease, and I suspect I am not alone in this phenomenon.
Major life events, good and bad, are stressors that can alter our self-image. There is even a scale for it called the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory on which my recent life event, “Major personal injury or illness,” is listed at number six out of 43 items.
Since Monday when I received the good test news and recognized that I wasn't feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, I realized I need another change in self-image – from sickly to healthy again or, perhaps, in the more familiar vernacular of the cancer world, survivor.
It may take awhile to make the switch back, but at least I am doing it consciously this time instead of it sneaking up on me while I wasn't paying attention.
Does this resonate with you? Have major life events changed your sense of yourself? For better or worse?