A couple of years ago, I wrote an article Job titles: Who do you think you are?, which provoked more commentary from Flying Solo’s audience than any other piece I’ve written.
It described how tricky it can be to define exactly what you do professionally. Descriptors have authority, but also come laden with assumptions. When I describe Flying Solo as a community of independent business owners, it’s often assumed I mean entrepreneurs, when very few are, in fact, entrepreneurs. And what’s more, most are not even entrepreneurial, which is just as well, because if they were they wouldn’t need the support and advice we provide.
People defy labels and their attending prejudices all the time. There are mothers who aren’t maternal, successful people who aren’t happy and psychotherapists who are in terrible mental health.
Then there are people with cancer who are in pretty good shape.
Often, I don’t think I behave as a ‘real’ cancer person is expected to. For instance I cycled into town on the weekend, where I bumped into a dad from school. He clutched at his chest “What are you doing on a bike!!” It was as if I’d escaped from an asylum. He went on “It’s brilliant! You’re out! It’s so good too see!”
If I’m surprising folks for that reason, then I’m happy. It may seem disingenuous of me but I don’t feel comfortable being called a cancer survivor/fighter/victim. Obviously it’s not technically untrue, it’s just that most people’s assumptions about how dreadful it must be to have cancer fails to capture how I feel about the experience as a whole. And it is an ‘experience’ – it’s something that’s happened, it’s not who I am.
As a side note, I don’t see myself as brave either, because that implies a) I had a choice in the matter, which I didn’t given I want to parent and live, for a long, long time and b) that those who perish failed to be brave enough, which is clearly untrue.
As a word-lover I’ve been fascinated to observe how incredibly powerful that six-letter word is. ‘Cancer’ shocks and scares like no other word I’ve uttered. In the UK there was a campaign that aimed to disengage this stigma. It declared “Cancer: it’s a word, not a sentence.” But many people assume, very wrongly, that you’re going to die. Just like many also assume, again, very wrongly, that depression isn’t a real illness, when in fact it can often be not only debilitating, but also life-threatening.
But the little c is part of my world now so I have to accept the power and responsibility that comes with that. And if I don’t want to be seen as a victim, which I really, really don’t, I can’t go beating people around the head with it.
For instance, the other day after my treatment I got pulled over by the cops for speeding in a school zone. I gave my explanation – that I was from New South Wales and didn’t realise I had crossed the border where the time was different – and could see he was in two minds about whether to issue a ticket. “Do you have anything else to say?” he asked.
I looked over at my branded bag containing my gown and lotion. “See that bag? That’s the logo of the Premion cancer facility. I’ve just finished a radiotherapy session and am on my way to my psychotherapist, who’s helping me make sense of this total and utter nightmare of a year, and he will ask me questions about my dead parents and my children and I will weep and weep. I will then head back home to my daughter and baby son, who are with their father.”
Is what I could have said. Instead I said “I’m sorry, it was a genuine mistake.” And he let me go with a warning. My powder was kept dry.
That bag. Honestly. It was as if it contained the Ring, or a light saber. I could have easily, easily pulled it out and got off for sure. Might I have been so principled if he’d written the ticket? I think so, although I guess we’ll never know for sure.
Brené Brown calls oversharing for attention ‘floodlighting’, because your conversation partner is dazzled and discomforted by your words.
At the psychotherapist later that morning, the receptionist told me in detail about her lousy day so far. It made my tongue bleed I was biting it so hard. The treatment. The run in with the law. “Your lousy day, huh?” I said. But again, only in my head.
Because how can I claim to not want to be identified with cancer, yet at the same time wrap myself in its protective tentacles?