Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What's In A Label?

A colleague of mine was talking about a friend of hers who has cancer - let's call her Jane. And Jane told my friend that she doesn't want to be known as "Cancer Girl." She doesn't want to be that girl that people say, "Oh, Jane. Didn't you hear? She has cancer." Doesn't want to be the one where a colleague she barely knows comes up to her and puts a gentle hand on her shoulder, and with a slightly cocked head, says, "Are you alright?"

I hear you, Jane. 

It's hard to understand the multiple layers and labels that make up any individual.  Each layer adds a voice to the complicated song that defines us -- and few people hear the chorus of voices. It's easier to hear just that one voice and to know what the voice sounds like. That's what drives us to labels.

You're a democrat or a republican. You're a Gen Xer or a Baby Boomer or a Millennial. You're a soccer mom or a working mom; a lawyer; a doctor. Each one conjures up its predefined notion of what that label is. But it's never that cut and dried. 

To really understand someone, you need to know which of the labels apply - you need to know the voices that make up their song. The problem with the cancer label is that it is always the loudest voice in the chorus. 

I don't want to be known as The Guy With Cancer. Not just because of the complications of people's reactions to that news. But because it threatens to drown out the other voices in my song. I'm a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend, a colleague, a manager, a coach, a runner, a writer, a soccer player, a center fielder and many other things.  

Will any of them be audible over the din of a cancer label? 

One of the ongoing challenges of cancer is to not let it define you. I can't control how people label me - and that's true with or without a cancer diagnosis -- but what I can control is how I perceive myself. And no matter how many people know I have cancer; no matter what treatments may or may not come, I'm never going to think of myself as "The Guy With Cancer."