When I meet someone new or I’m in the middle of that awkward icebreaker during the first class of the semester, the last thing I want to say about myself is that I’m a cancer survivor.
I’d rather say that I love reading. Or that I’m a legal assistant. Or that I know all of the lyrics to ‘Bust a Move’ by Young MC.
I don’t like to inform strangers of my unfortunate run-in with the rebellious cells in my body is because it changes the way people look at me. And not in the way I’d like it to.
I was in the middle of a debate in class last week where we were heatedly discussing assisted reproductive technologies and more specifically, the process of IVF. Those that have read my previous posts or those that can read minds would know that I have had some experience with fertility treatment. So here we are, chatting away about the specifics; needles, transvaginal ultrasounds, raging hormones. When the tutor mentions how tender your abdomen can be right before the eggs are harvested and I absentmindedly say “yeah and it’s even worse if you’re hyper-stimulated, it makes you look pregnant”. Obviously I said this with a little too much familiarity and as a result, everyone then looked at me expectedly, as if I should explain how I would know that. So as I explained how I had eggs harvested due to treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma, I watched the faces of my classmates magically transform in front of my eyes. The muscles in their shrewd, science-loving faces slowly relaxed until eyes were glistening and heads were tilting. The undiluted pity on their faces was less subtle than a punch in the face.
I was no longer the anonymous peer who was late to class because her English tutor always ran overtime. I was the sad little cancer survivor.
I don’t have ‘cancer survivor’ in my Instagram bio because I don’t want cancer to be my identifier.
“You know, the one who had cancer.”
It wasn’t a choice for me. Yet people tend to romanticise the cancer experience as a way of dealing with it. But for me, it wasn’t a ‘battle’. I wasn’t ‘fighting’ every day. There’s nothing brave about having chemo and radio when you know you’ll die without it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that I have come out the other side of this disease. But I don’t want to wear it around like a badge of honour. I want respect for who I am as a person, not respect by default because I’ve been sick.
I think a lot of people can empathise with this feeling. The stigma (positive or negative) surrounding illness or disability can impact the way people see you. I want you to make your mind up about me without the cancer ‘filter’. Whether you like, hate, love or loathe me, I want it to be for the choices I make every day and not solely because the universe chose me for some cruel experiment on cell mutation.
I’m lucky enough that people can look at me and not immediately know that I’ve been sick. A lot of people aren’t as lucky.
So I’ll leave you with this.
Most sick or disabled people don’t want your pity. They’d just prefer that you identify them as ‘the weirdo who loves Harry Potter’ before you say ‘she’s the one who had cancer’.