Rockin' the survivor identity
Surviving cancer is a big deal, and it's hard not to pretend it is a huge part of your life and identity. At the same time, a lot of people would just as soon leave that part of their lives behind; all the questions and comments only serve to remind of painful treatments and perhaps just how close they came to dying.
I have never shied away from the fact that I am a leukemia survivor and now a stem cell transplant recipient. In fact, my survivorship has been a part of my online identity for a while now, even going so far as to explicitly celebrate it as part of my LinkedIn profile, as if it were a professional qualification.
But isn't it? I mean aren't the experiences we have - the shock, the frustration, the perseverance - worth something? Is it wrong to think that somehow cancer survivors have a unique perspective on life and the world?
Of course, like any experience, just surviving cancer doesn't guarantee you'll learn anything from it. After all, there are lots of people with many years of varied experiences as managers who still manage to be useless at it. Likewise, I know there are plenty of people who survive cancer and go right back to their old lives, for better or worse, as if nothing had happened. When presented with an opportunity to learn, some people just don't take it.
I do think the challenges, suffering and joy of cancer survivorship are worth celebrating and advertising. After all, I am a cancer survivor. Anyone who isn't prepared to accept that perhaps isn't someone I necessarily want to be spending a lot of time with. More significant, and probably what more people worry about, any potential employer who thinks the risks of hiring a cancer survivor (a pre-diseased employee) outweigh the benefits in experience and maturity gained from the experience is perhaps not an employer I necessarily want to be associated with.
Denying or hiding the experience of cancer is a bit like pretending that one doesn't bring political, social or religious biases into one's life and work. You can try to be something you're not, or believe something you don't, but at the end of the day it's almost impossible. It will come out. And in the mean time, the only one who is suffering is you.
If there is one thing I have learned from facing a potentially fatal illness, it's that one of the worst things you can do for your health and well-being is waste a bunch of energy trying to be somebody you're not, or trying to please people who think you need to change. It's easy to say, I know, and I can't claim to be perfect at it, but remembering it is very valuable when times get tough.
So I'm not afraid to tell people about my illness. Perhaps there will be opportunities that will pass me by because of it, because of people being afraid of me being infirm, unreliable, doomed. But I'm betting there will be at least as many opportunities that will present themselves precisely because I am being honest, genuine and true to myself. After all, what characteristics could be more important than honesty and integrity? They go right to the heart of who a person is. And for me to try to hide or minimize my experiences would not be honest, would not contribute to my integrity as a person.
My name is Stuart, and I am proud of and empowered by having survived leukemia!