I have been having a serious identity crisis lately. This crisis is probably most notable when I walk by a mirror. I am taken aback every time. I have no idea who the person is staring back at me. It’s an unpleasant feeling to say the least. I recognize some parts of her. Her lips are normal. They look nice. And her nose looks familiar. But her eyes, now bereft of eyelashes and eyebrows, look like floating blue spheres. She looks like a ghost. She looks like a cancer patient. I don’t know that most people would know exactly how to describe a cancer patient but you certainly know one when you see one. And I’m it. If you need further proof, here it is:
It’s hard to describe how looking like this feels. I think my first reaction is to say: THAT’S NOT ME! It’s some stranger that’s come to inhabit my face but it’s not me. Certainly part of this is about vanity although my feelings about the importance of my looks have changed dramatically over the past year. I used to operate in the world as an attractive, young, healthy, white, straight woman. I knew well what privileges that afforded me. I drew some confidence and a sense of self-worth from my appearance (although as with most humans, the way I looked was also a constant source of insecurity). I don’t really feel the same anymore. Certainly I would still like to be considered attractive. I can’t say that I want that any less now than I did before. But I also don’t feel as reliant on my appearance for confidence and a sense of self-worth as I did before. My confidence now comes from what I know and what I have been through. I am worthy because I understand things about life that are worthy of understanding. I am worthy because I have a story that is worthy of being told. It makes me sad to think that I didn’t feel this way before cancer. We should all feel this way. We all have this worth.
So this is more than a self-esteem issue. I am not fishing for compliments here. You can tell me I still look beautiful to you or that what matters is what’s on the inside and I would appreciate that but that’s not really the point (nor would I necessarily believe you). I do not glance in the mirror and feel upset because of how unattractive I feel. What is most upsetting is how sick I look… how much of a cancer patient I have become. This is what my appearance now communicates to the world. “I have cancer” is written into all the details of my face and I hate it. This hatred is fueled by a deep-seated sadness and anger about what has been taken from me. What has been robbed from my physical appearance is just a visible metaphor for what has been robbed from my life. I feel like I’m watching friends all around me making plans to move, getting pregnant, starting school, graduating, changing jobs, getting promoted and all I’ve got on my docket is to recover from chemo, get surgery, and start radiation. After that it’s check ups every three months, and then check ups every six months, and then check ups every year. And that’s not to mention the constant fear that it could come back. That it could once again hijack my life, but this time for good.
I cried throughout my last chemo last Friday, unable to stand the thought of going through it all again but also feeling overwhelmed that I had given 5 months of my life over to this terrible treatment. If the chemo had been wildly successful maybe it would have felt more worth it. But as far as we know, it hasn’t done much more than shrink the tumor maybe a half a centimeter and keep it from growing. It just doesn’t feel like something to celebrate. I have survived the treatments but only just barely. If you think I’ve gotten through this with any grace I promise that there was more ugliness than even I could ever have imagined. It’s been a battle… a battle that feels like it’s become my life… my identity. Letting myself be defined by this disease feels like a death sentence. If I am cancer how will I ever get back to living?
And so, in the midst of this anger and sadness fueled identity crisis I am forcing myself to see another way forward, one in which cancer is not my only identity. Or better yet, one in which I can embrace and accept the cancer as part of a more complete version of myself. First of all, on the physical side of the equation my hair should start to grow back soon now that chemo is officially over. Hooray! So I should be rid of this cancer patient face in the next few months or so (and in the meantime I’ve become pretty good at drawing on eyebrows). And on that front I am feeling completely and totally prepared to embrace a brand new me. I’ll have super short hair for a very long time and I’m ready to rock it. I have also begun slowly but surely changing out my wardrobe. I’ve started searching for the unique. I want a wardrobe made up of clothes that are special and interesting, ones that have their own story. I’ve started ducking into vintage stores and scouring vintage Etsy shops. I even started using an online personal styling company that sends me new clothes to try out every month. So far it has been made up mostly of things I never would have considered wearing before which is exactly what I’m looking for. I’m ready for my appearance to reflect how I feel and I’m ready for that feeling to no longer be “sick.”
In terms of my life I’ve decided that I can’t let cancer or the fear that comes along with it take my life over. You know that saying, “live like you’ll die tomorrow”? Well I sort of want to live like I’m going to live instead. I already get the part about not taking this life for granted. I just want to live like someone who won’t be held back, who won’t be defined by any disease. I’m not saying this will be easy. It will, in fact, require constant and potentially unending practice and I will fail miserably some days and I will find myself wallowing in fear and self-pity. And that’s ok. But when I can overcome I just want to be Katie. I want to be the whole complicated array of things I know I am. I can add cancer patient and, hopefully, one day soon, cancer ass-kicker, to my resume. In spite of all the ugliness it has brought to my life it has also made me a much stronger, more vulnerable, more patient and infinitely more appreciative version of myself. So I can accept those parts. And hopefully one day I will be able to accept the whole battle: the good, the bad and the cancer patient face that I once had.