A few weekends ago, I walked with a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks before me. Because of a different sequence of treatment, she finished chemotherapy in June, two months after I finished; and so, unlike me, she still bears the bald head of a woman with breast cancer. “What does it feel like to not move through the world as a cancer patient?!” she exclaimed, when she saw all my hair.
It’s actually a question I’d already been pondering. The answer changes depending on the day, the circumstance, the company.
The week before my May 20th surgery, my family and I traveled to Sedona and the Grand Canyon; and though I didn’t yet have my brows and lashes, I did have my energy back as well as enough hair on top of my head that, for the first time since starting chemo in November, I felt like people not-in-the-know wouldn’t look at me and immediately see someone with cancer. Since I was a plane ride away from my small hometown, for the first time in 6 months, no one beyond my family was in-the-know, and I moved through that week in Arizona very aware that I felt different. Very aware that for the first time in six months, I blended in. (Spoken like a true, middle class white woman living and traveling in dominantly white parts of America.)
How did that feel? It felt like I was really and truly on vacation. Away from home and away from cancer.
I felt something very different the other week when I passed a woman wearing one of the “cancer hats” I once wore. I felt an invisible solidarity—invisible even to her since I no longer look like a cancer patient. And I wanted to make our solidarity known. I wanted to say, “I know what you’re going through.” I wanted to say, “I’m not like everyone else who is pretending not to notice the scarf on your head and what it means. I’ve been there. (And really, I’m still here, with a summer of radiation to go.)”
So how does it feel to no longer look like a cancer patient? It feels good. It feels like I am now more than a breast cancer patient. But it also feels like an important part of my life and my identity has gone underground.
Those with cancer carry mixed feelings about words and phrases like “survivor” and “battling cancer.” For me, the phrase “battling cancer” never resonated. I never felt like I was at war with cancer. I feel (hence the name of this blog) like I have been “riding the wave” of breast cancer, letting it carry me to new highs and new lows and trying to trust that I would end up exactly where I was meant to be. But I realize that when I passed the stranger in the cancer hat, what I felt was a desire to share my own breast cancer “battle scars.”
No longer looking like a cancer patient makes me realize that I will forever be someone who had breast cancer. (I will forever be someone who had breast cancer. How surreal that feels at times.) And it makes me realize that, strange as it may sound, I will wear that part of my identity with pride, perhaps because it makes me feel like a survivor. I get the complexity of labeling those of us who survive “survivors,” as if the more than 40,000 women who will die of breast cancer this year are somehow less-than. Let me be clear: I think every woman with breast cancer is a survivor, whether or not she outlives the disease.
I feel like I am living something that most people will never truly understand. And so when I pass someone who very likely does understand, I want to shout, “Me, too! Me, too!” I want to swap stories and tears and hugs and newfound wisdom. I want to feel what I imagine most of us want to feel: Like I am seen. Like I am understood. Like I am not alone.