Cancer as a Game Changer
“I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw the real me” is how someone under treatment for cancer described her altered appearance. Her head was shorn of hair, her cheeks were hollow, her skin had a greyish tinge and her clothes hung on her.
This is a profound statement and for the person concerned it denoted a shift in consciousness. She suddenly realised that her idea of herself was largely defined by the physical which was built on shifting sands. Her next question quite naturally was, “who is the real me?”
Cancer can become a metaphor for self discovery provided you are willing to take a chance and meet the real you. It requires stripping off the mask that each one of us so assiduously wears and hides behind. This is no easy task as change threatens all of us. How quick we are to reach for that wig, that prosthesis or that bag of tricks that will make us look like what we were before.
While wanting to restore status quo ante serves a useful purpose as it gives us time to adjust to our diagnosis and meet several practical needs, sooner or later we must accept that we are more than the person we once were. I think at the end of treatment each one of us who has had cancer should throw a “coming out” party at which we bare our tonsured heads and tortured souls. I believe that it will be therapeutic not only for us but for those who care about us. More often than not we end up playing the game of “let’s pretend all is as it once was” in the hope that no one will find us out and reject us.
I recall applying for a job shortly after I finished my treatments and returned to New Delhi. On the strength of my qualifications I was shortlisted. However, at the interview, when I mentioned that I had spent the past year being treated for cancer I could see the shutters coming down. Not surprisingly I was rejected. The very fact that I was willing to talk about my cancer experience had gone against me; there are some things that are best left in the ante-room and cancer is one of them.
That was 1987. I fear that even today for many families cancer is a dirty secret that is best concealed. This game of “let’s pretend” can extract a terrible price as people continue to blame themselves for the shame their families feel or live in constant fear of being “outed”. Young people suffer the most as they are usually advised by parents to lie to potential marriage partners and employers. No one it seems is willing to give credit to the degree earned in the School of Hard Knocks. So it’s back to wearing the mask and letting cancer have the last laugh. Are we ready to change this?