A conductor on my train ride home yesterday evening hit on me. It took me by complete surprise. Cancer patients generally are not the target of smooth dudes, but I guess my hat looked like it was meant to provide warmth, given the cool temperature. He called me, "beautiful."
My immediate reaction to his compliment: "No, I'm not. I have cancer." I wanted to take off my hat and say, "Look at me. I'm not beautiful. I am broken."
Instead I politely thanked him for the compliment and asked a fellow commuter to move his backpack, so I could sit down to rest. As the train rolled along, I thought about that initial reaction, and tears streamed down my face. Since my diagnosis, I know my family, friends, and colleagues have continued to think of me as, well, me. But outside that circle, I have either been "someone who has cancer" or a patient. Not just another human being.
Despite the caring nature of my oncologists, especially Dr. Sharma, I can't help but view myself differently than before my diagnosis. My frequent doctor appointments, blood draws, injections, and daily medications are a constant reminder that I am a patient.
I am a white blood cell count. I am an IgG or INR/PT level. I am a body weight used to calculate a dosage. I am a health insurance member ID number. I am a PCR remission test result. I am a data point in the APL remission rate.
Softly, in the back of my mind, there's a phrase on constant replay: "I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer."
But this train conductor, who very well might have forgotten his glasses at home, has really low standards, or makes the same comments to every woman who boards the train, didn't see me as a cancer patient. He saw me as just another human being. It was so incredibly refreshing to have that validation, to have an external voice silence that internal mantra.
And as I continued to cry on that brightly lit train, it occurred to me that those sitting around me also weren't viewing me as a cancer patient. They had concluded I was a complete basket case. This realization was equally refreshing. My tears shifted from those of sadness to those of relief.
The medical appointments will dissipate, and as I pass more remission tests, I will break free from this emotionally abusive relationship with cancer. Its hold on me is already beginning to loosen. I know I must tell that voice in the back of my mind to stuff it. I may have this going on, but I'm still a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an employee. That list has got to be long enough to qualify me as just another human being.