When people look at me, what do they see? If I’m at the gym, maybe they notice that my t-shirt doesn’t lay across my chest normally, or that I tend to favor my left arm. If I’m attending an evening meeting, maybe they notice that I’m showing signs of fatigue, and that how I articulate is different then than it is earlier in the day. If I’m at a social gathering and feel the need to stretch, do they catch a glimpse of the scarring underneath my arm? If they give me the news that a community member I’ve never met has recently received a cancer diagnosis, are they surprised at the tears in my eyes and my adamant offer to help by providing meals or transportation?
Being a breast cancer survivor is a chunk of my identity, for better or for worse. I hope not to wear it as a badge, like some sort of social-status symbol. While I cannot deny that it is impossible to ignore cancer’s imprint on my life, I don’t want it to be my defining feature. Yet anyone that looks past my surface will understand how deeply survivorship roots into my core.
I would be lying if I said it doesn’t color my view of the world. I see everything through cancer’s lens now. It cajoles me to look deeper, to view people as individuals with their own lives, with layers of complexity below the surface that I can’t observe directly. It forces me to pause and analyze, really study, someone’s motives. It provides me with the realization that people are so much more than we think at first glance, that they are the accumulation of many influences.
I can no longer scroll through social media posts and gloss over comments about society without pausing to read them. I’m left to wonder “What’s this person’s motivation to comment in that way? Where is he/she coming from? What in his/her experience would provide for (or against) that view?” My own mind is a place of swirling emotional responses, studied facts, and hazy or discernible remnants of experience and memory. Lurking behind it all is the recollection of my high points of personal success, and the painful awareness of my lowest instances of struggle, adversity, and error.
It can be tiring, this need to connect, this urgency to understand. Part of it is knowing that I’m past cancer treatment and adapting to life as a survivor. I’m waiting for a blood test to come back with worrisome results, or expecting to feel something below my skin that should not be there. I fret over my diet, the amount of exercise I can squeeze into a day, and if my stress is preventing me from getting enough sleep. I worry that my precious children will follow me down this path and have their own cancer battles to fight. Knowing the amount of baggage I’m carrying around makes me wonder about others, and cognizant of the fact that we all are hauling personal luggage.
I can’t help but wonder what the inside of another person’s head must sound like, since living inside my own is deafening. I sense the inertia of connection: when we are at our lowest, those that link with us are our lifelines. The tide changes, and then we are anchoring someone else to our shore. This is the human experience, and it is why our need for community is strong. We say it takes a village to raise a child, but really it takes a network of support for anyone at any age to thrive.
In the midst of our feelings and opinions over world events, political candidates, policy debate, and religious interpretations, I find myself in a different place now that I’m on this BRCA+ journey. I relate to the vulnerable, the victims and the survivors, because I’ve had my own life pulled from my control. I’ve relied on the mercy of others, and I carry cancer’s physical, emotional, and mental damage.
I can remember how I naive and invincible I was before the diagnosis shattered my stability, and I can relate to those whose limited experiences narrow their field of vision. I can’t fault them for what they don’t know, for fearing to take in the noise from someone else’s head.
I can also see clearly that the only way to resolve these issues is for uncomfortable, uncensored dialog. No speaking unless it is preceded by listening. If you don’t have anything to learn, then you have nothing to give. In embracing our collective noise, we can find our way together.