Who Am I?

‘Please tell me about yourself.’

This question has been haunting me over the last few weeks.

It first came up in a scenario which I had not expected to be a trigger – a job interview I was conducting with a colleague. It is a most basic interview question, which I have answered myself many times. It is an easy one, you just have to find something witty to say, something truthful but exciting. But as I sat there, silently listening to someone else describe themselves with a sense of confidence and ease, I felt a pang of anguish. Would I be able to do the same?

It came up again during my first appointment with the therapist I have just started seeing, but this time it was directed at me. I did not have the words, and I started crying.

Two years ago, I know exactly how I would have described myself. I had perfected it to an art, and I had smart and playful ways of describing myself, with a number of variants – for job interviews, on a dating profile, when meeting strangers, as an awkward first date question.

I have lost that sense of self. The first, and pretty much the only thing that comes to mind when I think about that question is ‘I had cancer’.

Most days, I feel like it is the only thing that defines me.

I used to say I was ‘aa sister – with two brothers, one younger, one older’. Now, I am the only member of my family that had cancer.

I used to say ‘I am in my twenties’. Now, I had cancer at an early age.

I used to say ‘I love art, crafting, making things, discovering new techniques’. Now, I try to craft to occupy my hands and stop myself from thinking about cancer.

I used to say ‘I grew up in France, and I moved to the UK right after uni’. Now, I went through cancer with my family in another country.

I used to say ‘I am determined, ambitious and always up for meeting new people’. Now, I am tearful, shy, and scared that other people are going to see that cancer broke me.

I used to say ‘I love writing – I am in the middle of a short story at the moment’. Now, I write a blog about cancer.

I used to say ‘I am a rock for my friends, I am someone you can rely on’. Now, I crumble and can barely hold the weight of my own pain, let alone that of others.

I used to say ‘I do not want children’. Now, I cannot have them.

I used to say ‘I love travelling, I am always up for an adventure’. Now I know I will be refused travel insurance because of cancer, and I will have to coordinate my holidays with my many appointments.

I used to imagine my friends thinking of me, and describing me me as ‘a friend from uni’, ‘a friend from work’, ‘my old school pal’, ‘my old tennis partner’, ‘that girl with the French accent’, ‘the one with all the shoes’, ‘the one who listens to weird music’. Now, I know that for a lot of them, I am ‘the girl who had cancer’.

I feel like I have no identity, no personality outside of cancer.

Even when I look into the mirror, I barely recognise myself.

Strands of grey have appeared in my hair for the first time, and they have only become more prominent over the last few months.

I lost a tremendous amount of weight after the surgery, which I put back on after starting HRT, and now again because of the antidepressants.

I have scars, which my eyes go to as soon as I soon as I pass a mirror. It does not matter if I am wearing clothes over them, I look for them, as if I could see them through the jeans I wear. Some of them are scars from the surgery, some of them are wounds that I have inflicted to myself during panic attacks.

I have messy, medium length hair as a result of the many post-cancer haircuts I decided to get. I am growing out the undercut I shaved when I wanted to regain some control over my body.

Even the tattoos I got and which I absolutely love are there to remind me of cancer. They have other meanings too, but they are part of my cancer.

The one on my left arm are words from On The Road, with black stars that reference Kerouac, David Bowie and Harry Potter all at the same time – probably three of the things that most defined me between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. But the words ‘mad to live’ remind me of how I felt in those first few weeks after the diagnosis. They are cancer words.

The tattoo on my right arm is made up of circles spelling out ‘you won’ in Morse code – a broken, incomplete circle on the inside, and a full one of the outside, a metaphor of how the surgery has left me. It is a timeless quote from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it is the line that broke my heart in the last series of Schitt’s Creek, but it is cancer as well. I trace it with my fingers as I write this blog, and it feels like I am tracing the last fifteen months of my life.

I am my cancer. I wish I was not. I hope a day will come when I am more than that.

Family – Breaking Traditions, Crushing Expectations

This marks the start of a new series of posts. After spending time with my family over Christmas, a full twelve months since last seeing them, I suddenly had a clearer idea of what my diagnosis meant to them and how, in some ways, it affected them as much as it did me.

I am the middle child. The only girl in between two brothers. One close to my age, one a lot younger.

I only really know my mother’s side of the family. Amongst my cousins on my that side, I am ranked fourth out of nine. The first girl after three boys, amongst a group of six cousins all born within five years of each other. Three boys, three girls close together and then, years later, another three boys.

I never knew the pressures of being the eldest, of paving the way for the ones that would come after me. I never had the attention that comes with being the youngest child, the baby of the family.

What I have had to live with though, were the hopes and dreams of parents and grandparents who had different visions for the future of their boys and girls.

It is very prevalent in my family, more so than it probably should be. There is a sense of tradition, passed down from generation to generation. Boys and girls are not the same, and they should be raised differently. It is the relationship we have with our grandparents, the goals they have set for us since the beginning. Boys are pushed and encouraged to follow their dreams, get a good job, be successful. Girls are praised for having good grades, being quiet and amiable, and they are constantly asked about their relationships, and when they will have children.

Oh, I am sure I exaggerate. There were times when my parents and grandparents were proud of me for achievements of my own. When I finished school, then uni. When I won prizes for best poem and best calligraphy at the tender age of nine. When I found a job and became financially independent. When I started knitting, and proved to my nan that her lessons twenty years prior had not been in vain.

But there was always a sense that I was not following the path that they had wished for me. The fact that every time I went to visit my grandparents, they asked if I had a boyfriend, how serious it was. Whether I wanted children. When I was going to have them. When I moved to the UK, my family were more scared than encouraging. ‘But are you really going to raise your children in another country?’

My family laugh when they hear my brother’s tales of joining this or that political demonstration in Paris. They shake their head when he mentions his political engagement, but still they debate with him and take him seriously. When I told my nan about taking a feminist writing class, she told me to be careful, and not become ‘one of those feminists who scare men away’. After all, political engagement and strong feminists beliefs were not, in her mind, synonymous with a happy, fulfilled life. It is dangerous. I never told her about the many demonstrations and women’s marches I took part in.

My nan used to be a feminist. She used to be out on the street, marching for women’s rights and choice to own their bodies. But as she started having a family, raising her own (many) sons and daughters, she fell back into age-old patterns that imprison women in a role I did not wish for myself. My mum often tells me how differently she and her sisters were treated from her brothers. She does not see that she has repeated the same pattern.

For years, I pretended to go along with it. Shook my head when they asked me when I was finally going to get married and have children. Laughed when my nan kept mentioning how her sisters were already great-grandmothers. How my cousin had had a child – how it would be my turn next. I ignored my mum when she told me that she would love to be a grandmother, when she said she was not getting any younger.

It was always expected that, once my rebel years were over, I would settle down, marry and have children. I still have trinkets that were given to me to ‘pass on to my children’. By refusing to conform to the family pattern, in their eyes, I was only delaying the inevitable. It would happen, and they would finally be proud of the woman I had become.

When my mum and my nan, in turn, learnt of my diagnosis, in addition to the pain, they had to face the disappointment of hopes they had clung onto for years. My mum mentioned how she would never see her only daughter pregnant. My nan sent me a teary, extremely violent email, about how unfair it was that my ability to have a family was being ripped away from me. How sad she was that my life was being torn apart, even if I would be physically fine. How she could not even begin to imagine how it felt, for me never being able to experience the biggest joy of being a woman. In her eyes, I had lost everything I should have lived for. That realisation hurts.

I am more at peace with my future than they are. They had built a world of hopes on something that I had not signed up for. But today, these disappointed dreams and expectations weigh on me. I hear it when my nan barely knows what to say to me anymore. Her whole idea of me as a person, as a woman, has shifted. She does not know me anymore, as the life she had built for me in her head has come crumbling down. What do you talk about with someone you cannot understand, someone who you had imagined a whole life for, and who no longer meets your expectations?

Every time I speak to her, I feel the weight of her disappointment, of her shame. She has voiced this disappointment every time she has written me an email or given me a call, telling me how tough it must be for me, how sad I must be. How she wished we could have traded places, so I could live a proper woman’s life. But the disappointed dreams are not mine, no matter how many times she tries to convince me of it. They are hers.

I will never be able to give her what she thought would be my future. I was the eldest granddaughter. I know she wanted to see me pregnant, because she had told me so. I know she wished to see me happy in the only way she could imagine a woman ever being happy. I know she worries about what my life will look like now that I am no longer able to repeat the old family tradition of having children.

It is taxing, feeling like you have disappointed someone you care so much about, someone whose dreams you crushed without having any say in it. I feel responsible, even though I never wanted these things for myself.

I will never achieve the ideal life of a woman, as defined by the matriarchs of my family. I will break tradition. I will go against their expectations. But I will be the woman I decide to be, my own idea of a woman, and I will grow from their experiences, even if I do not claim them for myself.

I Am A Woman

When I first heard the word ‘cancer’, when I was in that cold, cluttered room with a doctor I had met less than a minute earlier, I did not think for one second about how it would affect my identity. I did not imagine it would ever change the way I thought about myself, the words I had used to describe myself for years, decades. But it did, and I am constantly fighting to reprise an identity that was taken from me the minute I became another case on the surgeon’s schedule.

I have always been a feminist. I cannot remember when I first realised it. Maybe it was during discussions with my mum, with my gran, with these women who helped shape my life, sometimes despite themselves. Maybe it was because of arguments with friends, with my brothers, with teachers. I remember trying to deny it, pretending that I did not care, saying that I was not a feminist, no, I was in favour of equality between all genders, not just promoting women’s rights. I was a feminist then, and I am a feminist now.

I have always been proud of being a woman. There have been times where I found it hard, but I have always wanted to stand up for women, celebrate how strong we were, I have always admired women and everything they represent. My idols are strong, passionate women who support each other. I love being a woman, and though I might not love everything that comes with it, I would not wish to change that for anything in the world.

If there was ever one thing I was sure of, one truth that I could always go back to when in doubt, it was my identity as a woman. I used to be a girl, then I became an insufferable teenager, and finally I made my way into womanhood. I have always felt like a woman, even when I considered myself a tomboy, wearing ripped jeans, riding my bike, insisting on buying boy’s hoodies (and then went through an absolutely contradictory phase, where I did not wear anything but dresses and skirts for over five years – I am an all or nothing kind of person). I never even considered the possibility of feeling differently. I never felt the need to justify my feeling like a woman – it was so obvious to me, it was engrained into every single part of my being. It took me a while to realise I was coming from a place of privilege, being so sure of myself, fitting into one of these pre-defined categories. I consider myself a very open-minded individual, especially as regards gender and sexual identity. I never truly believed that a person’s gender was defined by their sexual organs (or lack thereof). As I grew up, I became more aware of gender identity and gender studies, and I find it absolutely fascinating (and I don’t just mean that I am obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race and cry every single time someone struggles with their gender identity on there. Even though that’s true too). I just never thought, privileged as I was, that I would ever not feel like a woman.

When the doctor told me that the only ‘reliable’ treatment option for my cancer would be a total hysterectomy, I did not imagine for one second that it would affect how I thought of myself. I remember sitting on that sofa, in a quiet room, calling my mum, messaging my closest friends, breaking the news to them less than an hour after having heard them myself, and I remember thinking that it was alright. It would just mean never being able to get pregnant, and no more periods. The latter, I could do without. The former was more complicated.

My life goal had never been to have children. I am terrified of pregnancy. I took more pregnancy tests ‘just in case’ in my early twenties than most people who are trying to get pregnant will ever take, just because of how much the possibility that I might be pregnant scared me, and I needed to be sure. Really, really sure. I am afraid of babies, I am not good with children (do not tell that to the families I used to babysit for). But at the same time, looking down the line, looking at how I saw my life in 10, 15 years – could I really say I never imagined having children, having a family? I could not. As I told my dad, a mere few weeks before the diagnosis, when no-one had any idea of what was happening in my body, I could ‘see myself one day considering thinking that I might not not want to have children.’ It was a very remote possibility, and I took my decision there and then. I would have the hysterectomy, and I would never carry children.

Further down the line (I will write a post about it, or maybe several), before the operation, I had to consider whether I wanted to freeze my eggs. Or, as the experts call it, ‘explore fertility-preservation options’. I had decided from the very moment they mentioned it that it was not something I wanted to do, not something I felt comfortable with. So this was it, then. I would lose my ability to have children that were biologically mine, and I was perfectly fine with it.

I know and admire plenty of women who are unable to have children, for one reason or another. I also know and support many who do not wish to have them. It does not make anyone less of a woman in my eyes.

And despite all this, I have struggled. I have struggled with my identity as a woman. There are days where that thought haunts me, and I do not know why. Is it the loss of my reproductive organs, even though I never believed they were what made me a woman? Is it the loss of my ability to have children, even though I did not particularly want them? Is it the loss of hormones caused by the surgical menopause, despite the fact that in my eyes, older women are still women?

I am always harder on myself than I am on others. I judge myself a lot more harshly than I do other people. Maybe that is it. But deep down, I think it is also the thought that other people might not see me as a true woman. I know who I am, but how can you predict how other people will react? How do you know what someone will think? And I am not naïve. I know very well that plenty of people consider that your gender identity lies with your reproductive organs. Well, in that case, mine burned down ten months ago.

The first time I felt like this was mere days after the surgery. I had just gone home after two nights in the hospital, and my family had come over to spend Christmas with me. They were staying at an AirBnB a few streets down from where I lived, and I was spending the night on my own. It was maybe the first or second night I was on my own. It woke me up in the middle of the night, and the pain was worse than any physical pain I had ever experienced. Who was I? Was I still a woman? It was the very first time I cried after the surgery.

It crops up regularly. Sometimes there are triggers. They are often silly, often extrapolations of my own imagination. I take things personally. I cry, and other times I get angry. One of my worst episodes was in the spring.

I have always been a huge Harry Potter fan. I know everything there is to know about it, they are the first books I read in English, just because I could not wait for the French version to be released. And that tweet from JK Rowling angered me like few things have angered me in the past. I was angry on behalf of the trans community, I was angry on behalf of some of my friends, I was angry on behalf of everyone who does not fit within the cisgender majority. I was angry on behalf of anyone who had been hurt by her words. And it took me a while to realise I was angry on behalf of myself as well. I do not menstruate, and I am a woman. I do not have a uterus, and I am a woman. My body does not produce oestrogen on its own, and I am a woman.

I say it to myself sometimes. I look at myself in the mirror, and I tell myself ‘I am a woman.’ It alleviates the doubts for a while. I am a woman.