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Your Identity

How Do You Think of Yourself?

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Your identity is a combination of how you think of yourself, how you think others see you (your reputation) and the experiences in your life. Before a major event, like discovering cancer, in your life, you may not stop to think about your identity being made up of all these elements—you may just take being you for granted.

Think about the words you use to describe yourself. Maybe you think of yourself as a “father” or “mother,” “boss” or “coworker,” etc. You are “energetic” or “very social” and “outgoing.” Or maybe “reserved” and “quiet.” Some other identity categories are less obvious because we simply don’t think about them often—like “healthy” or “independent.” Cancer changes how you think of yourself.

New identities

In many ways, you are the creator of your identity. It’s not long after being diagnosed with cancer that you will hear the words “cancer patient” and maybe even “cancer victim.” You will hear the words “cancer survivor” or become a “person battling cancer.” How you think about yourself can affect how you feel and how others perceive you.2 Deno M, Tashiro M, Miyashita M, Asakage T, Takahashi K, Saito K, Busujima Y, Mori Y, Saito H, Ichikawa Y. The mediating effects of social support and self-efficacy on the relationship between social distress and emotional distress in head and neck cancer outpatients with facial disfigurement. Psycho-Oncology. 2010 Dec 20. You may resent how cancer threatens to take over your thinking and sense of self at times or becomes all that others talk to you about. You will wrestle with how to claim your identity for yourself rather than allowing cancer to do it for you. Reading books about or by people with cancer or joining support groups will help you find the words and ways of thinking about yourself that are best for you.

Physical changes to your identity

Our society is very sensitive to appearances; everyone is self-conscious about their looks. People tend to assume a “normal” appearance indicates health and a good personality and they stigmatize (judge negatively) people who are different.3 Lebel S, Castonguay M, Mackness G, Irish J, Bezjak A, Devins GM. The psychosocial impact of stigma in people with head and neck or lung cancer. Psycho-Oncology. 2011 Sep 19. Becoming disfigured due to cancer surgery challenges both your and others’ assumptions about what it means to be a person. The more severe the disfigurement, the greater the challenge can be.3 Lebel S, Castonguay M, Mackness G, Irish J, Bezjak A, Devins GM. The psychosocial impact of stigma in people with head and neck or lung cancer. Psycho-Oncology. 2011 Sep 19.

The first step is to consider how you view yourself—how difficult is it for you to look at yourself in the mirror, observe and accept the changes cancer treatment has caused to your body? Again, reading about or spending time with others who share your particular challenges can be extremely helpful in learning to accept how your life has changed and how best to adjust. It is also helpful to focus on what is truly important to you—for most people, it’s their friends and loved ones. Engaging these people in the process of coping with your disfigurement will help you—and them—make the most of your situation.1 Callahan C. Facial disfigurement and sense of self in head and neck cancer. Soc Work Health Care. 2004;40(2):73-87.

In my reconstruction, someone said to me, "You could do something over that, another thing to hide it." I said, "To be honest with you, I see it, and I see it as courage." To me, they are not marks of shame.Heather P. (orbital tumor survivor)

References

1 Callahan C. Facial disfigurement and sense of self in head and neck cancer. Soc Work Health Care. 2004;40(2):73-87.

2 Deno M, Tashiro M, Miyashita M, Asakage T, Takahashi K, Saito K, Busujima Y, Mori Y, Saito H, Ichikawa Y. The mediating effects of social support and self-efficacy on the relationship between social distress and emotional distress in head and neck cancer outpatients with facial disfigurement. Psycho-Oncology. 2010 Dec 20.

3 Lebel S, Castonguay M, Mackness G, Irish J, Bezjak A, Devins GM. The psychosocial impact of stigma in people with head and neck or lung cancer. Psycho-Oncology. 2011 Sep 19.