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Identity

Who Am I After Cancer?

The label you choose may be the key to healing.

Vadim Bogulov / Unsplash
Vadim Bogulov / Unsplash

Scrolling through Instagram, I came across a post from a well-known author who recently completed cancer treatment. In her post she expressed how she hated labels like “strong” or “fighter." Her experience, she wrote, was just that of a young woman facing the challenge in front of her and doing everything she could to see her young child grow into an adult.

In the comments, hundreds of survivors weighed in on how they felt about these descriptions by others and how they labeled themselves. The overwhelming majority felt labels like "fighter" or "strong" set up an uncomfortable dichotomy: strong or weak, fighting or defeated. Others felt that being called a “fighter” honored the battle that they had fought and won. Finding your cancer-related identity can be an important first step toward integrating your cancer experience into your personal story and helpful in moving past treatment, and studies suggest that the label you choose is important.

German researchers, for example, asked prostate cancer survivors many years out from treatment to choose one of five cancer-related identities. Most patients chose “someone who has had cancer” or “patient.” Only a quarter chose to be identified as a “cancer conqueror” or “cancer survivor,” but those who did scored higher on overall well-being. Identification as a “victim” was associated with higher rates of depression and a lower overall sense of well-being.1

This finding is not universal, however. The type of cancer may influence the choice of label. In a recent study of adult survivors of childhood cancers, for example, most patients chose to be identified as a “survivor.” Like the above trial of prostate cancer survivors, however, those who identified as a “victim” were more likely to have worse overall mental health and were more likely to abuse alcohol.2

Overall, most studies show that patients who align their identities with agency ("survivor") instead of passivity ("victim") have better emotional outcomes after treatment. A 2016 analysis of 23 papers looking at self-identity in patients after cancer treatment found that identifying as a “cancer survivor” was associated with a better quality of life.3 This is an important reminder that the words we (and others) use to describe our experiences are powerful.

Cancer may have changed some core piece of your identity and this can feel unsettling. It is normal to feel different and ask the question, “Who am I?” Considering who you want to be as life moves on can be a healthy way of honoring your cancer experience and preparing for a different future than you imagined before you heard the word “cancer.” Cancer may have left you feeling raw or uncovered feelings that make you feel uncomfortable. Reflecting on your past as well as imagining your future can deepen your sense of control as well as open possibilities that you may not have considered prior to treatment. Now may be the perfect time to clarify your values and goals in order to choose an identity that best reflects who you are.

References

1. Jahnen, M., Mynzak, E., Meissner, V.H. et al. Diversity of cancer-related identities in long-term prostate cancer survivors after radical prostatectomy. BMC Cancer 21, 1041 (2021).

2. Lydia L. Chevalier, Eric K. Zwemer, Robert Casey, and Christopher J. Recklitis.The Effect of Pediatric Cancer on Identity in Young Adult Survivors: Results from Project REACH. J Adol Young Adult Oncology 11, 297-303 (2022).

3.Cheung, S.Y., Delfabbro, P. Are you a cancer survivor? A review on cancer identity. J Cancer Surviv 10, 759–771 (2016).

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