Monday 12 April, 2021

Losing Your Identity During Cancer & How To Cope

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Every month, the War On Cancer app offers all members of the War On Cancer community free live sessions with licensed psychologist, Hana Jamali. We recently had our first session with her about losing and redefining your identity during and after experiencing cancer.

We’ve summarized a snippet of our conversation with Hana, where we talked about losing a part of our identities because of cancer and some advice on how to manage this. 

What we’ll be covering in this blog: 

What is the definition of identity or self?
How do we form our identities?
Why do we lose a part of our identities when going through cancer?
The affect of others’ perception of you during cancer and how to cope
Identity advice for people who have been recently diagnosed with cancer 
Identity advice for people later on during the cancer experience

What is the definition of identity or self?

The definition of identity is how you see yourself, perceive yourself, or define yourself. Identity is obviously a really big question but one part of an identity could be your name, how you enter a room or behave when you’re around people, what you find important, or what drives you have in life. Usually, it’s a thought about yourself and how you perceive yourself. We also have certain ways of describing ourselves, and those ways are a reflection of our identity. 

How do we form our identities?

It’s important to mention that there’s not a clear-cut line between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you, and you can identify yourself in several ways – from personality traits (introvert or extravert) or the role you play in life (mother or entrepreneur or singer). When we’re younger, we tend to define ourselves by traits, such as being social or creative, and as we age, we add on different things that you’ve achieved in life. 

This is because we tend to identify ourselves with our thoughts, and this goes hand in hand with how we spend our time. If you put a lot of time into being a parent or an entrepreneur, your thoughts pursue that. If you allocate a lot of time into doing one thing, that’s where your focus lies, while if you do a handful of different things, you’ll learn to adopt different mindsets. 

You can see that especially now during quarantine – a lot of people experience a loss of a sense of self because they’re not doing things or having the interactions they’re used to, and thus, losing information that makes me feel like themselves. 

So, where you spend most of your time usually becomes the way you define yourself. This manifests itself externally when introducing yourself, for example – if you spend a lot of time at home with the kids, you may first describe yourself as a father or mother before moving on to other traits.

Key takeaway: Cancer usually causes a crisis because it makes us question a lot of things that we may never have questioned before. After a cancer diagnosis, it’s normal to be in shock and begin to think about the effect cancer will have on your life. This sparks thoughts about who we are, now that a lot of aspects of our lives are changing

Why do we lose a part of our identities when going through cancer? 

Going through cancer is a form of crisis. There’s a lot of confusion because a lot is changing. If you’ve found or identified yourself in a certain way and then experience a crisis caused by cancer, there’s a period of time where you question things such as what you’re going to do, how long this is going to last, who your real friends are, and then, who you are. Because it makes you question a lot of important things in life, it can be painful and can feel like you’re losing, to some extent, the person you were before you were diagnosed with cancer. 

In the beginning, it’s a lot about shock. It’s about being in a state where you have to work with a lot of acceptance around your diagnosis – what it means for your life, the things you can or can’t do, and seeing that relationships change and the impact that has on you. Also, in that state, a lot of people are unable to see possibilities in a way that perhaps comes later down the road. 

Further down the line, there tends to be more space to think about identity and the loss of identity, depending on how cancer has affected you. For example, if you’re someone who was active before being diagnosed with cancer and enjoyed hiking or running marathons and identified yourself with that but now can’t do that anymore, you question who you are without that. What am I supposed to put my time into now or who am I if I’m not that marathon runner? 

Key takeaway: The way others perceive you usually has an impact on how you see yourself, ie. your identity. If you feel victimized,talk to the people around you and make known what you need in order to change this dynamic.

How does the way others perceive you as a victim during cancer affect your identity? What is some advice to deal with this? 

In the beginning, a lot of people feel victimized (by friends or family or society), but don’t feel like a victim. The way others perceive you usually has an impact on how you see yourself, ie. your identity.

Hana suggests to always try to talk to people around you. It’s really hard when you see that everything around you is changing. A good way to cope is to talk about what you need. When you don’t do that, people make up their own ways of meeting you. They might, for example, call too much or not call at all. This may be because they feel too needy or on the opposite side of the spectrum, in the way. If you help them and tell them what you need, it can help the dynamic in your relationship. 

Here’s an example of what you might say: “I know you’re really worried right now, but when you’re calling me I need you to talk to me about other things besides my cancer.” Or: “When you use that voice when you’re feeling sorry for me, it makes me not want to pick up. Let’s help each other. What I need from you is when you call me, can you try to be a bit more like you were before.” If they don’t know how that was, help them! Maybe they used to call you about something you used to do together or remind them of the tone of voice they use that makes you smile.

Key takeaway: The way others see you usually has an impact on the way you perceive yourself. Focus on changing the dynamic between you and your loved ones if you’re being victimized. Talk to the people around you and make known what it is you need.

General identity advice for people who have been recently diagnosed with cancer? 

Here are two suggestions on how to address that and deal with an identity crisis caused by a cancer diagnosis: 

How can you change the dynamic going on between you and your loved ones who are also going experiencing a change caused by cancer, but might not know how to approach you or talk to you about this? 

Secondly, focus on dealing with different thoughts and working with relationships and how they might change in the here and now. In the beginning, it’s about gaining understanding and asking open questions about where you are right now, and what is helpful in the present. What is it that helps you get up in the morning or gives you a glimpse of positivity, happiness, or a drive that you can recognize amidst the shock?

General advice for dealing with a loss of identity later on during the cancer experience?

There tends to be more space to think about identity and the loss of identity after the initial shock. When you think about what it is you can or cannot do, who you spend time with, how you spend your time, what you think about, and more. 

This brings up a lot of questions about what you would like to do instead. Some people want to get to it straight away, and want to explore and be curious about what they want their life to look like now. That’s a really strong resource: curiosity. 

Be curious about the unknown and while trying to navigate all of these feelings that are going through your body. Instead of seeing it as losing yourself as you lose a part of your identity, think about how you can be curious about these new thoughts and feelings – see what you can work with here and what you would like to do instead.

According to clinical research, curiosity is a really helpful quality and is something you can train and do more of. It’s super helpful especially in times of crisis. 

Share how you’ve been dealing with a loss or change of identity in the War On Cancer app.

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