An Identity Crisis after a Cancer Diagnosis

The importance of maintaining a positive attitude during cancer treatment

by Linda Yellin
illustration of broken egg
Photograph: Justin Fantl

A friend who had survived breast cancer started sending me spiritual e-mails on how I’d now joined the Sisterhood of Cancer. I didn’t want to be in the Sisterhood. I wanted out of the Sisterhood. Another friend informed me that “the underlying emotional causes of cancer are usually unexpressed anger and unresolved resentment.” Now I was pissed! I put that friendship on hold.

But so many people volunteered to visit during chemo that I was afraid I might need to schedule additional sessions. And everyone I’d ever met wanted to come watch while I got my head shaved. What was with that? Only Randy got the honor. Afterward, I sent a photo of my new shiny pate to my sister in Chicago, who wrote back: You’ve had worse hairstyles.

I dubbed myself Sinéad O’Cancer. A big step toward my new self-image as a cancer patient.

 Were there perks to being Linda Who Has Cancer? Yes. Homemade soups and flowers from friends. E-mails now signed love. People kept telling me I have a nicely shaped head, an asset I never knew I had. Or needed. And every morning Randy brought me coffee in bed. True, it had Miralax in it, but I was touched.

After infusions two and three, my complexion looked great. A PET scan technician informed me I have extra-long, skinny lungs. I now knew my lungs would look good in jeans. I also learned my scan was clean. No green glowing critters! I was ready to graduate to radiation and a free suntan.

Weeks later, my energy started coming back. I felt healthy. I felt like me. I’d be bald longer than I’d be in treatment. But a few days after getting the news about my clean scan, I spotted a donation card for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at the grocery store. I slipped in a quarter, thinking, My society! And on my way out, I passed a woman with no visible hair, wearing a turban. I smiled at her. We were Sisters.

LINDA YELLIN’s new novel, What Nora Knew (Simon & Schuster), pays tribute to Nora Ephron.

Next: Postdivorce, I'm a Solo Act

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First published in the November 2013 issue

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Catherine 05.13.2014

I so identified with this dear lady’s experience, though she was much better about telling her husband than I. Healthy all my life, and unfamiliar with cancer, I equated it with death. I announced my intent to rent a seaside cottage – until my time to go; then I would contact him. My husband cried; my daughter yelled at me, for quitting. Yes, I pursued treatment and am alive to write about it but Cancer tested me, the reality of my Christian faith. Did I really believe in life-after-death – yes I did. At the moment I thought I was dying, it wasn’t sadness I felt, but unmitigated joy and release. I’d lived my life, mostly true to my faith, and knew with no trace of doubt that the One Who accompanied me through life – Jesus – would greet me on “the other side” of death.

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