May 6, 2020
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the idea of identity.
IDENTITY: the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.
This makes it sound so simple, so concrete. So that makes me….. Woman? Human? Person? Being? But really aren’t we so much more complex than this?
We are a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that make up the fact of who we are.
On the surface we are the names we are assigned (Amy), the genders we express (female), the people we choose to love (heterosexual).
We are the color of our hair (blonde), the color of our eyes (blue), and our height and weight (5’4″/125lbs pre-social distancing).
We are the places we’ve lived (Virginian/Buffalonian) and the work we do (massage therapist, entrepreneur).
We are pieces of others identities through our relationships to them (daughter, sister, aunt, wife, friend).
We are the activities we enjoy and the interests we engage in (traveler, singer, writer, crocheter, self-development junkie, wannabe yogi).
We are the positive traits we recognize in ourselves (nurturer, visionary, connector).
We are the negative stories we adopt (procrastinator, perfectionist).
And, sometimes, we are the things that have happened to us (breast cancer survivor).
Why is it though, with this last one, that it can to take such prominence in how we are seen?
We live our lives with all kinds of happenings – occurrences beyond our control – but so many of them lose their hold after a short period of time.
I have lost two dads – no one calls me an orphan. I have been divorced – I have never been called a divorcee that I know of. I was born with a dislocated left hip – no one refers to me as born broken (except my sister, she still finds that one funny).
Why is it that our status associated with breast cancer becomes a badge we wear?
From diagnosis we become a patient. Then if we are lucky to be declared cancer-free we move to survivor. And should it recur? Well then we get to be thrivers.
It’s not that I have a problem with the actual assignment of a status (though the terms themselves is a discussion for another day) but the fact that it seems to be something we don’t get to choose.
No matter how we ourselves approach our relationship with our experience around breast cancer others see us through the lens of SURVIVOR or WARRIOR.
Certainly I suppose the magnitude of such an experience warrants some sort of continued acknowledgement but it seems to have become something beyond what it deserves.
What about the WOMEN we are FIRST?
In the world of breast cancer we often forget to focus on the individual behind the disease.
During diagnosis and treatment the doctors and nurses see us as names on a chart, counts in our bloodwork, margins, surgery and prognosis rates.
Afterwards in the support groups we join we introduce ourselves by our diagnosis and treatment regimen: Hi I’m Amy, Dx IDC Stage 1 2017, BMX with immediate implant recon and BSO followed by 8 rounds of dose dense blah blah blah…
And to the outside world? We are a pink ribbon wearing pink boxing gloves, wrapped in a pink cape cheerily kicking cancer’s ass. Or worse, we’re victims.
So how do we change this?
We start with ourselves. We focus on the WOMAN first. We remember and let ourselves sink into all of the pieces of ourselves that have nothing to do with cancer.
And the pieces that have been unfortunately impacted? We learn to love and accept them and fold them into the rest of us.
Our bodies that are different than they were before can still be beautiful and still be loved.
The anxiety that whispers in our ear? We can quiet its voice.
The pink ribbon we are assigned on the day we are diagnosed? We can choose how often we wear it.
Let’s start with each other. Let’s start now.
Amy Hartl is a woman living with a breast cancer history and a mutated BRCA1 gene. She has built a career helping women come back to their bodies and their sense of self through the power of human connection. As We Are Now LLC is her latest effort at helping women recover, reconnect, and reclaim their bodies after breast cancer. She also loves to crochet even though she doesn’t know how to follow a pattern and she’s only known how to do one stitch for roughly 30 years. She thinks the Beatles got it wrong because really happiness is a “warm bum” and she uses her car seat warmers all year round.
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