The Blog

I am Not a Label, But a Person Who Happens to Have Cancer

We all may resort to labelling something or somebody, when we do not know much about it, when it is a taboo, when it feels complex and difficult. Labelling can make a situation more manageable and in that way, it can help - a bit.

TV's Michaela Strachan has talked about her double mastectomy and fear of being labelled as 'breast cancer patient'. Why? What is it like being labelled? Why do people do it? And what can you do about it?

We all may resort to labelling something or somebody, when we do not know much about it, when it is a taboo, when it feels complex and difficult. Labelling can make a situation more manageable and in that way, it can help - a bit.

If not careful, labelling can be unhelpful, keep us ignorant, make a situation a lot worse and hurt. Stereotyping can reduce a person to a single issue like race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, income, class - or illness. When that happens, other aspects of a person's identity (eg their achievements, abilities, potential) are easily overlooked, ignored and devalued.

People with cancer may experience a range of attempts at being stereotyped by others, who make assumptions about what it is like to have cancer: people ...

  • Will die - sooner or later
  • Have done something wrong to get cancer
  • Are emotionally fragile and will cry
  • Do not want to hear the word cancer and talk about it or
  • Will only want to talk about cancer
  • Cannot go back to full time work
  • Are angry and difficult to deal with
  • Are miserable, in a bad mood all of the time, and want to be left alone
  • Will not be interested in small talk and every day issues

I could go on; you get the point. When that happens, the person with cancer is not involved, not asked, not heard. Being labelled can separate you from others; it can make you stand out, or make you invisible. You may be treated as 'different' and end up feeling alienated.

And some of these 'labels' my even hold true for some people with cancer. At some stages of the journey (like at diagnosis or during treatment) the world may feel like a very small place, where nothing but cancer and treatment matter, where everything is reduced to life and death.

But even so, cancer is not all that there is to you. It is on top of what was there already, and it is in addition to what else may still come.

Apart from being labelled, people with cancer may also experience that in every day life some things have changed drastically for them, even if the cancer has been treated successfully:

  • Difficulties getting a mortgage, life insurance, loan, health cover, travel insurance, because they are deemed a financial risk
  • Discrimination at work or job interviews, because they are deemed unfit to do a particular role (Macmillan Cancer Support have a range of useful leaflets on discrimination in the work place.).

The fear of being labelled is a real one, and if you have cancer, then it is understandable that you may be concerned about being treated differently. Because cancer can make very real changes to your life, how you look at it and you may become insecure about who you are:

  • If single - who will want me now? Who will take the risk of becoming a carer or losing a partner, if the cancer comes back?
  • If single and infertile due to the treatment - who will want me now? I cannot become / make you pregnant.
  • If in a relationship - how much can my partner take of this? How much support can they really give me, or are they a hindrance? Will they start looking elsewhere?

These are just some thoughts and questions of many.

Now this all sounds pretty bleak. And yes, it is messy and can be heart-breaking. What to do?

I believe that with her interview to the Mail on Sunday Michaela Strachan has started to break out of the fear of being labelled. By speaking about what it is like for you and what you need from others, you are in a much better place to influence how people engage with YOU and not the label they choose for you.

Asking what you need from family, friends and employers may not be easy. It may feel uncomfortable, too personal, and you may worry about coming across as weak. However, keeping up appearances and pretending that it is easy and you do not need others, is setting up a world of make-belief. This takes energy, is a lot more stressful, and in the end may not even work in your best interest.

Asking for help, does not mean you will get it, which is another not uncommon experience of people with cancer. Not everyone has relatives and friends who willingly (or unwillingly) offer support. When that happens, it may be hard to face the truth of disappointment. But at least, if we ask, others can no longer hide behind the label, they may have created as an excuse: "H/she did not ask."

Lynda Bellingham has shown in her way, that dying of a terminal illness does not mean you lose a say in your death. Angelina Jolie has spoken frankly about her choice to have a mastectomy. Kylie Minogue has recently talked about the difficulty of asking for help and dealing with the uncertain life expectancy after a cancer diagnosis. Danny Baker spoke about his difficulties during treatment for throat and mouth cancer.

For every person in the public eye, there are many more who privately know all about labels and being labelled. They make choices every day about how they wish to deal with their cancer, the life they have, and who they are, which is more truthful, real and courageous than any label can ever be.

Psychotherapist / Counsellor, MA, Reg. MBACP (Accred)