Patient stories are woven by our experiences and become the fabric of memory, a tapestry which will be passed on even when we no longer survive. These stories are exchanged in clinic waiting rooms. They are told in midnight conversations on kitchen telephones, sometimes punctuated with tears. These stories are told in hospital rooms in hushed tones over sleeping or sedated cancer patients.
A cancer story is shaped by chronology and anecdote, by serious clinical events and by humorous incident. The story serves to somehow give structure to our experience. And by building upon and repeating this narrative, we hope to somehow discover answers to those questions which plague us – Why did this happen? Why now? Why me?
As health care professionals, we become intimate actors in the stories that our patients will tell. Our words and actions, whether good or bad, mark key points in construction of those narratives. They are repeated for years to come, passed around, shared among friends and family. Because what we do and what we say helps to shape the very meaning of our patient’s illness experience.
And yet throughout those two years in remission, glorious and fulfilling as they were, my re-articulated identity as a cancer patient persisted. Perhaps this phenomenon is more prominent in patients with cancer. And perhaps that identity is exacerbated by the knowledge that mine is at present an essentially incurable disease. But I do know that where I once thought of myself as a man, a father, a husband, …where I once saw a hard-working, essentially dedicated nurse, …where I once considered my life intact though maybe struggling towards some sort of actualization … where I once saw myself as the sum of these things, …that vision of my life must now compete with the preeminence of my identity as a person with leukemia. I feel almost compelled to inform new, even casual acquaintances that I have cancer. Cancer it seems, whether in remission or relapse, is the new “me”.