By Leanna Blanchard
Defining one’s identity is hard enough for an average young person, but add in a cancer diagnosis and it can get even more complicated. As a young woman and young professional, and what I begrudgingly admit some would call a “millennial”, I’ve always been very goal-oriented, ambitious, and focused - just ask my mom, she’ll tell you all the wonderful things about me. Most of my life I have identified as an aspiring physical therapist, and in the last 5 years, if you asked me to tell you about myself, the very first thing I would have told you is that I work as a physical therapist.
When someone says, “tell me about yourself”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you identify most with your job? What about with your diagnosis? One of the biggest struggles I’ve had since finding out I had breast cancer was figuring out how I really see myself, and how I identify myself to others. When I’m too sick to work, am I still a physical therapist? Just a cancer patient? A survivor? Does it really matter? Who gets to decide these things?
Do me a favor - stop reading for a second. Go write down five things that you love about yourself or that you’ve worked hard at. Think about how each of these things makes you who you are, then come back and finish reading.
Cancer is something I never expected to be a part of my identity. But when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 2018, it was thrust upon me - just like the giant needle I now get jammed into my stomach every month to suppress my ovaries (don’t even get me started on medical menopause at the tender young age of 29).
I began sharing more and more on my Instagram account at the beginning of my cancer journey (@affirmationsfromcancer), and during my time off work, this was an exceedingly valuable outlet for me. In the beginning, I often wondered who I was as a woman if I didn’t have my health, my hair, my breasts, my fertility. But eventually, I also started to feel lost in cancerland. I felt like I didn’t know who I was WITHOUT cancer. In the process of accepting my diagnosis and shedding my old self, I struggled to find my current or “post-diagnosis” self.
When the diagnosis date gets further away, the treatments fewer and farther between, and the hair grows longer, what’s left? There is still so much of my story to tell, and I am continually learning to redefine myself. I work on reminding myself that I had cancer, but cancer didn’t have me. This is the narrative that is my life, it doesn’t belong to anyone else. I am not just a physical therapist, a cancer survivor, a patient advocate. I am a storyteller, a foodie, a dog and cat mom, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a wife, and an athlete. Every single one of these pieces is an equally valuable part of who I am. They all contribute to the whole of me, and I am more than the sum of these parts.
In today’s world there is a lot of pressure (via social media, your mom, cancer muggles, you name it) to always be productive, share the best of your best life on Instagram, move up and up in your career, move past the hard stuff, get married/buy a house/have babies/*insert your own annoying societal norm here*. It’s hard to see it when you’re in the thick of it, but all these things influence your identity too. You can start to feel like you aren’t enough, that you’re falling behind, that you’re making the wrong life decisions, that cancer has completely thrown off your center.
It’s actually okay to FEEL these things, but you have to remember that you are NOT these feelings - they do not define you.
I still work through these feelings almost daily, so I am the farthest thing from perfectly “healed”, but I want to remind you that your identity is YOUR choice. You are not just your diagnosis, your job, or whatever Aunt Marge at Thanksgiving wants to call you. You are unique, beautiful, and full of potential. You don’t have to be an expert in something to identify with it. You don’t have to be an Olympian to identify as an athlete, a Michelin starred chef to identify as a chef/cook, or even a full-time Instagram influencer to consider yourself an advocate. If you are any of these things though - get at me, I’d love to learn from you!
I think the big thing to remember here is that you are never just one thing. And at any given time, you can shift your identity. You can wake up and decide, “how much am I going to let *xyz* define me today?” It won’t always be easy, but it will always be yours.
I encourage you to allow whatever your hardship you are facing to influence your identity, but don’t let it completely take you over. Join different groups, explore new hobbies, travel, put yourself out there. You may be surprised to find new pieces of yourself and get closer to reclaiming your post-diagnosis identity. There will probably never be just one answer, it’s something we’ll have to work at, maybe every day. But just remember - you are never alone, and you are more than just one thing.