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What do you call yourself after a diagnosis of cancer?

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.

What is in a name? Everything in our lives has a name. We know where we are with names. Each cancer has a diagnosis name and a treatment name. But how do you name yourself after a diagnosis of cancer?

Up until 17:51 on 19th August 2003 my name was Rebecca or Bex and took my place in the world in named roles as a: mum, wife, friend, Aunt, sister, daughter, trainee teacher, ex civil servant, party goer and sun rise lover. After the moment of diagnosis these names receded into the back ground at speed leaving a void between these names and the new unnamed unwanted name which had just arrived in my life.

Who was I now? Was I a cancer victim? Would I become a survivor? I just ached to be who I’d always been but it didn’t seem appropriate after the life changing moment which had just taken place. I was still all those other names but now none of them seemed to matter.

My life quickly became time tabled around being treated for cancer leaving little opportunity to be the other names. I was called brave, inspiring, a fighter, heroine. Was I? To me I was just me getting on with what I had no choice in the best I could which was frequently badly.

I felt I needed to name the cancer if only to keep it separated and contained so it didn’t contaminate the parts of my life which I loved and had chosen. For want of a better word I medicalised myself and chose the word ‘patient’; it felt the least awful of the available options. It was purposefully cold and clinical. Patient seemed adequate to describe the physical part of being treated for cancer but at the same time also vastly inadequate for addressing the psychological and emotional impact cancer has as if mirroring the lack of support available to address this.

Being a cancer victim or sufferer felt degrading and stigmatising and yet for others this may motivate and inspire. I didn’t feel the need to name the cancer with fondness like a cherished family pet. I didn’t feel the need to name cancer through humour of anger. I sulkily ignored its presence until the treatment was completed and then spoke of it with disdained detachment and only when asked.

Once the treatment ended did I miraculously become a survivor? Did I have the all clear? Was I in remission or was there no evidence of disease? I felt I needed a name change to mark this occasion. I chose to say I had been treated for cancer and that today I feel ok and had no symptoms. I was cautious in proclaiming I was now cured and free to carry on as before. I was cautions preferring a bit of reality, I will always be at risk of a reoccurrence.

As I reengaged with my life more of my chosen names returned. Tests, treatments, anniversaries and check-ups return me emotionally to being a cancer patient but I hide this side as much as possible from the people in my life, they love me for the other names, not the name which may end me.

I’m not sure there is a suitable word to describe being treated for cancer or who you are afterwards. It’s hard to name something so destructive and changes so much and this adds to the difficulty in recovering from cancer because where do we place cancer in our lives if we find it hard to name it.

However you choose to name yourself after a diagnosis of cancer choose something which means something to you and that describes your experience of cancer, this will feel empowering.

How would you name your cancer both during and after treatment and why? Is this choice influenced by your friends, family, society or the media? Does the name change over time?



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