I don’t want to be a cancer survivor. More specifically, I don’t want to be a “cancer survivor”, a definable phrase that becomes my identity.
I was recently talking to a friend who is 5 years in remission (though this might have abruptly changed – may the biopsy be benign) and we shared perspectives on what it means to have cancer in the midst of so many other interests and chosen identities. Speaking for myself, I am a runner. I am an ethical vegan. I am a writer and a graphic designer. I am a coach. I am a number of identities I have freely chosen and accepted for myself, that I project to others. These define me to some extent and I embrace that. But it has been a greater struggle to accept “cancer patient” as part of my identity, in that this isn’t something I created. I didn’t willingly seek out cancer…it just happened to me. So in that, I don’t feel comfortable accepting it as part of who I am. It seems to be more a part of WHAT I am rather, but maybe those are just semantics. Regardless, the diagnosis remains.
With my friend, however, we began to speak of what it is to be a cancer “survivor”, in it’s definition as an identity more than just a physical reality. Maybe it was our relatively young age (we are babies in the cancer world), but neither of us felt good being “survivors”. I don’t mean to demean an individuals sense of identity in accepting “survivorship” into their life, but I also can’t help wonder how those individuals saw themselves prior to cancer. Did they not have a strong sense of self? Did the happenstance of cancer really bring an importance into their life that was stronger than anything else they did prior, and so being a “survivor” is who they became?
I don’t know…that’s not my place to judge, but speaking from personal experience, I don’t want to be a “survivor”. My life and my identities prior to diagnosis held far more importance than the act of living through cancer, should that become that case. So if I’m ever given the NEC report in the future, I don’t plan on adding “survivor” to my list of character traits, but instead plan to put this whole ordeal behind me and get back to concentrating on the life I once had and am constantly seeking every day.
I am a runner. I am a graphic designer. I am a writer. I am an ethical vegan. I am a coach. I am a father. But, regardless, cancer remains, and that is something I’m not allowed to forget in the present moment and I am also aware that I will never have the fortune of forgetting this cancer experience. That cloud will always hang above me until the day I die, but I don’t have to let it become me, not now and not as a survivor. However, if my previous stated identities must have qualifiers in the interim, so be it, cancer is still my reality. But let cancer be an addendum, not the core. I don’t mind if people say I’m that runner that has cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the graphic designer or the writer working through cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the coach that has cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the vegan that got cancer. I don’t mind if I’m the father who is raising his child through cancer. Just don’t switch the order of terms. I’m not the guy with cancer who runs. I’m not the guy with cancer who keeps working. I’m not the cancerous vegan. I’m not the guy with cancer who coaches runners, raises his kid and goes about life despite it all. Cancer is the addition, nothing else.
Yet, cancer is still there and it would be irresponsible to not address it’s reality. I don’t want to hide my cancer experience, which is why I write this post, which is why I post scarring and cringe-worthy visuals on Instagram, which is why I use cancer humor on Facebook, which is why I talk freely about it all. Because it IS my reality, it IS a part of me, but it is not who I am. Again, it is what I am…in part. And so I reference cancer, but not only cancer. I reference it alongside images of my work, alongside photos documenting my runs, alongside petty gripes and amusing (to me anyways) jokes and jabs at pop culture. Because cancer is not my identity, it is my reality.
But someday, I want it out of my reality. I want to be JUST the runner again. I want to be the guy throwing down 6 x 1 miles under 5:00 pace. I want to be the great father to the adorable, hyperactive son. I want to be the guy making a living doing what he loves. I don’t want to be the survivor. I don’t want to champion the genetic mutation I had no control over, that spiraled into chaos and almost took my life. I don’t want cancer to run my life more than it already has. I want it to be forgotten. I want to survive cancer, but I don’t want to be a survivor. I want to be my own version of human, no more, no less.
For now, I’ll continue to live through this experience with an unwanted, but unavoidable addition to my various identities. I only ask that it remain an addition, a terminology and unfortunate circumstance easily discarded when the time may come.