I am Not Cancer

I am not sick. I am Eileen. Eileen is my given name from birth. That label helps people to identify me and all that I am. Incidentally, I had breast cancer, but breast cancer is not me and I am not it. We had a relationship. It didn’t work out. We parted ways. I will never forget breast cancer as it made a permanent impression on my life and left a few scars. I hope our paths never cross again.

I’d been sick for so long and recovering even longer that I’d taken on a sick person’s identity. Eileen the Sick. The One with the Cancer. Has there been a day that’s gone by in the last four years where the word “cancer” didn’t enter my conversation? And if not my conversation, surely my thoughts.

Cancer became part of my identity – a familiar comfortable place I didn’t shed even when health returned. True, health returns slowly, bit by bit, and sometimes one doesn’t notice slipping into the Okay Zone. The residual complaints make Okay hard to recognize, what with all those ambiguous symptoms that hang around like unwanted guests. I blame all of that on cancer, just in case. If I’m not sure about my aches, pains and cognitive blips, I figure it must be cancer’s fault. It’s a convenient catch-all for all my problems, something I appreciated when cancer and I were in a relationship. I suppose I haven’t wanted to part with that perk. Even if it’s not cancer’s fault, I can’t think of a worthier scapegoat. It’s the cancer! I say. I’m exhausted, thanks to cancer! A twinge of pain pounds my temple. Damn cancer!

Cancer is an easy target at which to aim the arrows of anger, fear and blame. Other times, cancer is like a warm blanket to wrap myself in when I wish to hide from a cold, harsh world. Heck, the only thing I haven’t done is bronze and display it on my mantle. Probably because I don’t have a fireplace or mantle, or I might have done that too.

True, cancer is responsible for a lot that’s been and some that remains. No wonder I became habituated to being ill. Fatigue. Headaches. Insomnia. Neuropathy. And on and on it goes. This has been my norm for a long time. When many of my symptoms began to subside, it didn’t register when I slipped into a state of wellness.

On average it takes 66 days to form a new habit, give or take depending on the specific habit. Even at the upper end of the scale at 254 days, most cancer patients treat and continue to feel ill during recovery well beyond 254 days. No wonder being sick becomes ingrained in us. No wonder some of us get so used to it that we don’t see we’re well even when it creeps up on us.

I’ve had many days where I felt great, just to get smacked down after an over-zealous bout of over-activity, as if my body reminded me I’m not allowed to have fun. It put me in my place and reminded me who I really am – a sicko. Because of this, I often refrained from planning things with others. Who knew if I’d be up to it? And we all know fun is no fun when you’re not up to it.

There’s much at stake when you realize you’re no longer sick, the most noble being the threat to our bonds with others who have cancer. The identification and empathy we have with those currently in treatment and those with mets who will never be out of the woods runs deep. Those relationships have become meaningful and we don’t want to let them go, nor should we. But on an unconscious level, sometimes we hold on to the cords that bind, that which brought about the bonds we have with each other.

Sometimes there are fears about getting back into normal life. For me as a now-single person, I had not been the least bit interested in dating again. I’d been too preoccupied with survival – rebuilding my health and healing my wounded psyche. Yet as I’ve healed, I feel myself opening up to that possibility again. Relationships are what people do. That too is part of health. It’s scary to open up after being closed off for so long. I hear people talk about their relationship problems and wonder what planet they’re on. Yet, I’ve had those kinds of problems in the past and even during cancer when I was married to the Caregiver.

The real question is, what planet have I been on? It feels as though I’ve lived in a foreign country for the past few years and have had a difficult time assimilating back into my own culture. Yet, am I really so different? Don’t “regular people” have stuff to deal with? Whether it’s health or family problems or job stress, death of a loved one or loss of a job, these are all human situations that come under the greater umbrella of Challenges. Not one person escapes, even if the scope and intensity vary.

Shedding light on all of this enabled me to make an important shift. It’s not that I no longer need to massage the lymphatic swelling in my right arm. Some of my toes and fingers will always have nerve damage and the scars on my breast will never fade. The difference, though, is I’m not sick anymore. It caught me off-guard when I realized I’m okay. The cancer is in the past. Even if there were a recurrence, I can’t live in fear of something that does not exist today. Today, I am well. It might take 66 days to get used to this, but that’s a habit I’d like to take on.


  1. Lovely insights, Eileen, as always. Question: since you are well and cancer no longer defines or describes you as it once did, might you consider starting another blog or website in which you discuss things in your life other than cancer?

  2. Mark, not at the moment, although I occasionally share the non-cancer events in my life on this blog. People have different reasons for blogging. For me, it’s more than a recitation of the events of my life. It’s not just my blog; it’s a blog for everyone touched by cancer and life’s difficulties. It’s my way of giving to the community I’ve come to care about. There is also so much material that I still must write about. While cancer is one of the hardest experiences of my life, with that difficulty comes a lot of depth, even if that depth took me into the pit of hell. Mark, you are a writer for many years. I’m sure you understand more than most the material that begs to be written as I gain the insight that often only comes when looking back.

    As for the other things in my life, what should I write about … buying peaches at Trader Joe’s? My crap day job? Maybe my dance class and drum circle, but I’ll pass, at least for now.

  3. Beautiful! So well-said, my friend. I relate to every single thing you wrote here. While I’m more than happy to leave cancer behind, part of me hesitates to say that I’m well, I’m cured, because I fear I’m jinxing myself. Even though jinxing doesn’t factor into a cancer diagnosis or a recurrence, it messed with my mind enough to make me think it does.

  4. Nicely said! Eileen you always seem to collect your thoughts and put them into an understandable eloquent sequence. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. ~D

  5. Understood, Eileen. And whenever you’re ready, I’m happy to read about your buying peaches at Trader Joe’s, your crap day job, your dance class, or your drum circle.

  6. dear Eileen,

    wow! I’ve said it before, I know…but holy shit, these transitions. be they fair or foul, take such enormous energy and pondering! you have done a remarkably fine chronicle of yours and through your written thoughts you have assimilated with great grace and insightfulness. go ahead, take those 66 days – my dear, you have earned them!

    much love,

    Karen xoxo

  7. Nancy, cancer definitely knows how to mess with heads. There’s always the waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Thanks always, Diane and Karen, for your comments. I love hearing from both of you.

    And Mark, I appreciate your interest in reading my stuff, even if I would write about peaches. The fan club is mutual. Looking forward to your book “500 Dates” to be release this February! And a convenient link to pre-order. Did I say I was a fan? http://www.amazon.com/500-Dates-Dispatches-Online-Dating/dp/1629144665/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1406269635&sr=8-2&keywords=mark+miller+dating

  8. I. Love. This. Post!!!!! Still getting used to the idea that it appears I’m gonna live. 🙂 it’s taking me a bit more than 66 days… xx

  9. I have been slipping slowly into wellness, I’ll find out on Thursday whether or not my doctor can confirm conclusively that I am now in remission. There is a fear of coming out of this regardless of the length of time that remission may last. A fear of losing support from your friends and physicians. It’s very strange and I have had a hard time wrapping my head around it. Particularly since I never thought “remission” was even a possibility. It’s very confusing.

    • Scorchy, understood. I was thrilled to read your recent blog post. At the same time, remission brings with it new adjustments and much healing. Of course, this is a good “problem” considering the alternative, but one thing cancer patients understand that others don’t usually get is just because you’re in remission doesn’t mean you’re magically back to where you were pre-cancer. You’ve been through too much. That’s why we’re all here for you and each other. Hoping you’ll hear what you want to hear on Thursday. xoxo

  10. Hi Eileen,
    You put together your thoughts here so beautifully. I relate to much of what you say. Sometimes I think maybe I should stop writing about cancer, too, and maybe then I wouldn’t think about it so much. Then I realize that’s not true. Not writing about it won’t stop me from thinking about it and I still have a whole lot to say about it! And as you mentioned, some of what we need to say takes time to formulate and then share. I’m not ready to be done with that part I guess. I am ready to feel well, but I’m not quite there yet either. Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken up residence in a foreign body that I don’t even recognize as mine anymore. I guess I need more days to keep on figuring it all out. Cancer or no cancer, we all need more days to figure out stuff period. Writing helps me do that. I’m glad it helps you too because I like reading what you write. Nice post.

  11. Thanks, Nancy. And you in particular don’t write just for your own figuring it out. You have a good following on your blog and for good reason. You use your experience to help a lot of people. I can’t think of a better use of cancer.

  12. This is such a terrific post Eileen. You are saying the things that need to be said – thank you! And I loved reading the insights of your commentators too. Some wise women out there. Be well.

  13. Thanks, Marie. I agree about the commentators. I think a roundup of their comments could make a blog in itself.

  14. Eileen, this is an excellent post on a very important topic. How much of our identity is wrapped up with cancer? Your struggle is like my struggle. I believe I am more than just someone who had cancer, and I am grappling with cancer-identity issues. In reality cancer cannot define us. Thank you for this insightful post.

  15. Such a wise idea. Whether or not it comes easily, it is certainly worth he effort of finding that new habit called “healthy”. Feel well, Eileen 🙂

    • Catherine, yes, definitely worth the effort considering the alternative. I hope you are well, too, and that any cancer cells will take an eternal nap. xo

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