Lately I’ve thinking a lot about identity. My friend recently wrote a blog post on the topic, and it caused me to think about the labels I give myself or that have been given to me.
For example: runner. I like to think of myself as a runner. But am I? Running has been a part of my life since I was maybe 12, but I never ran track and I never raced until recently. Can I still be a runner? During my half marathon training, I upped my mileage and thought about running in a completely different way – does that make me a runner? Was I a runner once I crossed that finish line? Or do I need to tackle a full marathon? 3 marathons?
“Yogi” is easier for me. I’ve had a regular, dedicated yoga practice for many years, went through teacher training, and teach 2-3 times per week. I listen to yoga podcasts for crying out loud. I’m a yogi. I’m comfortable with that. “Runner” is harder because it’s new and less comfortable. I’m still finding my footing (so to speak) in this athletic pursuit, and clarifying how I think of myself in that context. I guess I can decide that for myself. I’m a runner if I say I am. If I want to identify that way. My Instagram account bio says I am, so I guess that means it’s true. 🙂
But there’s a label that I don’t often share and it’s not one I chose: cancer survivor. Yeesh, my palms got sweaty just typing those words!
When I was 15, I was diagnosed with leukemia by a nurse practitioner who might just have saved my life by following her gut instincts. I was treated in Boston for about 6 months, and then began the process of recovering and getting back to being a teenager.
As I grew older and became better able to process this experience, I decided not to shy away from thinking about cancer or being active in the cancer community. I founded the Colleges Against Cancer chapter on my campus and led our Relay For Life fundraiser to benefit the American Cancer Society. Fast forward more than 5 years and I now work for Dana-Farber and literally write and talk about cancer all day every day. But telling MY story has always been harder.
The reasons are complicated, but I think a lot of it has to do again with comfort. I don’t like making people uncomfortable. The words “cancer” and “leukemia” don’t exactly elicit the best emotions and memories for most people, so maybe I’m afraid to upset someone. Maybe I just never want to seem like I’m trying to draw attention or pity. How can I be proud of this? I didn’t discover my own treatments or do anything except what I had to do. I was afraid that talking about it would seem like bragging about something that wasn’t an accomplishment; it was an experience. It also never seems like a great time to dive into that conversation. In fact, if you’re a close friend of mine and we met after high school, I probably sent you a lengthy email at some point in our relationship explaining my story and apologizing for being too awkward to have told you in person a long time ago.
But then sometimes, I find myself telling someone with all the ease in the world. A few months ago, I was running with The Breakfast Club and found myself chatting with a woman I recently met through November Project and yoga. When I told her where I worked, she mentioned that a friend of hers was treated there at 15 and is now doing well. The parallel was too strong not to share. Maybe it was her mellow nature and attentive listening that made it so incredibly easy, or maybe it was the magical power of moving along side someone that makes conversations flow, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear myself saying the words “I was treated at Dana-Farber when I was 15 as well.” Even more surprising was how natural the resulting conversation felt and how I could move on with my day without much thought. That wasn’t so bad!
Just a few days later, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post from The Jimmy Fund. It was a picture of a girl in the hospital when she was 15, and a photo of her now at 28. When I saw that her name was Brittany, I nearly fell out of my chair. This girl (now woman) and I had both been treated in the same hospital more than 13 years ago. Stranger still, we had shared a room during treatment. Brittany H. and I had the same name, were the same age, were both born in Lowell, and were both avid basketball players that just wanted to get healthy and get back to our lives. I believe our parents even had several friends in common. Being her “roommate” was one of the most remarkable parts of my treatment experience, and here she was 13 years later on my newsfeed.
My first reaction was pure joy to see how great she looked, and then tears. It was like finding out the answer to something I’d always wondered about in the back of my mind but had never acknowledged. I was overcome with relief. We were both doing great. I also felt so grateful to the organization I work for that we have more and more of these amazing stories to share. I immediately reached out to Brittany H., and we are meeting up soon to grab coffee and catch up on life after 13 years of survivorship.
I mean how AMAZING is it that we were placed in the same room? And that we’re both now healthy and living full, beautiful lives? And that I work at the Jimmy Fund and saw her post and now we’ve reconnected? Amazing. That is good stuff.
Even though I think it’s okay not to share things that are personal, I found myself wondering if I wanted to share more. She had allowed The Jimmy Fund to share this public post about her treatment, and once we became Facebook friends, I saw that she had a party to celebrate each year of survivorship. Her candor about being a cancer survivor and to celebrate this important milestone was so admirable to me. She was putting it out there for all to see, to acknowledge what she went through and that she’s now doing so well. My experience with cancer is something I don’t want to hide about myself, but I also don’t always quite know how to best to share it.
I soon found myself thinking about this more and more based on those 3 key moments:
1) Reading a post and thinking a lot about identity
2) Chatting with a new friend and easily telling her my story
3) Seeing a fellow survivor (and fellow Brittany) be open and honest about her experiences.
After these 3 little nudges, I felt ready to open up and dabble with more acknowledgment of my survivorship. I can choose how I want to associate with that piece of my identity, and sharing it might be a way to connect with others, start meaningful conversations, and help me to feel less tension around bringing up something that is so integral to my life and my actions. Being open reconnected Brittany H. and me; who knows how many other incredible connections are waiting to happen?
Blogging offers a wonderful place to share. I’m not writing this post to “out” myself or hit a ton of birds with one stone (phew, no need to send out those lengthy emails anymore!); I’m just looking at this as a post about acceptance, acknowledgement, openness, honesty, and building comfort in talking about the things that are important.
We’ve all had our challenges, and one of mine was cancer. We’re all the synthesis of so many life experiences, and each have an incredible amount to share. That is to say, we’re all survivors in our own ways. Being a survivor is empowering because it means you’ve been through something and you have new perspective on life. For me, it means that when I get stressed about where I’ve been or where I’m going and whether I’m fast enough or consider myself a runner or any such silly thing that can weigh me down, it doesn’t take me long to try to shake the little things off. Like most people who have had an experience that sobering, I recognize that I can let my challenges weigh me down, or I can use them to lift me up and embrace life in all its undulations. What goes down must come up, right? I can’t imagine my life any other way and I love my life, so this experience is woven into the fabric of my past, present, and future.
So here’s my commitment to myself: Remember to celebrate the big moments and the milestones and share. We all know it helps to talk about the things that challenge us, and calling myself a cancer survivor is not some weird form of humble bragging or asking for attention. It’s acknowledging an experience that has completely and entirely transformed my life.
Suddenly, worrying about labels seems insignificant. What’s more important to me is gratitude. I’m lucky to have the luxury of deciding whether I want to be a runner or a writer or a yogi or a scientist or all of the above. I’m fortunate to be a survivor and fortunate to have the opportunity to share. So share I will.
One more story: This morning, I woke up before 4am to join a bunch of crazy runners at November Project Boston for a “triathlon” of the 3 workouts we do each week. We ran from Summit Ave in Brookline to Harvard Stadium, ran a full tour of 37 sections, ran back to Summit Ave, and completed 50 burpees and 2 full hills. The total mileage was less than 10, but those are some seriously challenging workouts on their own. Doing them together was beyond tough. I signed up for this race not knowing whether I could even finish it. Normally that would scare me, but in the spirit of all I’ve been thinking about this week, I decided to see what my body could do. I decided to push myself, test my limits, and also committed to keeping a little smile behind my eyes because I was choosing this race. I was lucky to run. And when it was done, I was filled with gratitude for my body, my strength, my health, and the never-ending inspiration of the phenomenal people and athletes around me. Gratitude is what keeps me connected to where I’ve been and where I’m going, and it’s also the simplest, most powerful way for me to avoid negativity about challenges that come my way and focus on all of the joy and love that fill my days. Even when things are tough and I’m pushing myself, I can remind myself that I’m so very glad to be here.
This is why gratitude is something I try to share at the end of every yoga class I teach, through some variation on this phrase:
Take a moment, in this still and quiet space, to express gratitude for your strength, your courage, and your decision to dedicate time to yourself today. Take a moment to appreciate your body for all that it has done, and all that it does for you each and every day.
Thank you for listening. Feel free to reach out. Let’s share more.