Living With

Separating Who You Are From Your Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide October 26, 2008
  • A friend and colleague of mine, Tracy, has an illness that sometimes causes her to miss several days of work. She’s incredibly conscientious, and a key member of our six-member Web team. After having missed nearly 2 weeks of work lately, having suffering through one calamity after another (both her own, and her children’s), Tracy was totally down in the dumps.

    “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I’ve missed so much work,” she said as she came in and set her bag on the desk. Obviously still in pain, tired in a way that only prolonged illness can produce, Tracy was down in the dumps.


    I talked to her for awhile, trying to cheer her up. I was walking that skinny tightrope between letting her know we needed her, but not making her feel bad about missing work.

    “Tracy, you know your health comes first. You need to take care of YOU. Never mind us. We’ll struggle along.” There; was that the balanced message I hoped to deliver?

    “I know, but that’s the worst part—I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I’m making everyone else’s job so difficult…” She sat down, sighed, and glumly started attacking the stacked-up emails in her inbox.

    I could see that it was going to take more than some glib reassurances to brighten Tracy’s mood. So as the rest of the team drifted in and we went through our usual morning routine—the kids, the stock market, car troubles—I let it drop.

    But later on, my thoughts turned back to Tracy: her chronic, sometimes debilitating illness; the tough combination of feeling awful, and wanting to do a day’s work. The guilt at “letting down” co-workers. The fear of not being needed which, for someone with Tracy’s work ethic, is huge.

    And I realized, Tracy isn’t separating her illness from the essential Tracy. Something nasty has invaded her body. It’s making her sick, and that sickness is preventing her from doing what she loves: being a key part of the work team, respected and valued by her colleagues; someone who matters. Tracy feels guilty about a random twist in her life over which she has absolutely no control. And that’s just not right.

    Does this sound familiar? How often have you stressed over “letting people down” during your cancer experience? You aren’t a good mother when chemo confines you to bed and you miss your daughter’s first soccer game. You’re not a good wife when radiation leaves you so visibly exhausted that your husband gets into bed, takes one hopeful look, and then doesn’t even bother to ask. And you’re certainly not a good daughter if you can’t be there every time your mother needs you.

    Well, listen up: YOU are NOT your cancer. The essential you—the woman who loves, who mothers, who makes the human connections that help keep the world turning—is there, beyond or above or surrounding cancer. Cancer tries to destroy your body, and sometimes does a pretty good job of it. And it tries to attack your soul. But keep your defenses strong; separate yourself from your illness. Realize that any guilt you feel is unfounded. Because you didn’t ask for cancer: you didn’t want it, didn’t earn it, and you don’t control it.


  • Cancer is something that’ll eventually (hopefully) disappear. And in the meantime, live your life without recriminations. You’re not this brother’s keeper.