I was in line at my bank last weekend, waiting to make a deposit. There was a customer talking to one of the tellers:

Teller (politely): I’m sorry ma’am, we now require picture ID to make cash deposits. May I see your driver’s license.

Customer (annoyed): I never had to do that before. I don’t want to do this every time. Can’t you just use visual recognition?

T: I’m sorry, ma’am but I don’t know you.

C: But you gave me two piggy banks last week!

T: I’m so sorry. I’m new and I have not learned everyone’s face yet.

C: How long have you worked here?

T: I started at this branch in December, ma’am.

C: By my recollection, you’ve worked here five months! Did you work here intermittently?

T: Yes, ma’am.

The customer left having taken 10 seconds to produce photo ID and far longer in first arguing with the teller and then using up time to prove her wrong that she was “new” to the branch.

As a cancer patient, I am asked to produce my insurance card all of the time, so frequently that I keep it in a very accessible pocket on the outside of my purse, right behind my driver’s license. I was tempted to show this lady my purse and say, “Look, instead of digging your ID out of the main compartment of your overnight bag-sized purse, you could have this handy dandy purse that makes it so easy to prove your identity!”

I said nothing. It would not have done any good. I suspect that having the inconvenience of digging her ID out of her bag every time she made a cash deposit was not the issue. She wanted to be recognized. She wanted to be seen, to be important, and to matter. We all want to be recognized from time to time.

Having cancer can be a challenge to one’s identity. It can impact us in different ways from person to person and change over time. Treatment can be so physically, emotionally, and spiritually altering that it can be hard to recognize oneself.

A lot of us dislike the pink ribbon culture because we don’t recognize ourselves in it. That is the biggest disconnect for me because the corporate presence has made it about making money, not about breast cancer.

Other associations are murkier. For example, many people do not like the war metaphor in fighting cancer. For others, it rings very true. I don’t have strong feelings about it as long as the metaphor is used as a coping strategy that makes sense to the person at the time and is not used as an explanation for why some people die from cancer and some don’t. Coping strategies should not be used to blame people for dying. Coping strategies are ways to make the best of a bad situation.

A lot of people do not see themselves represented in the breast cancer research, especially as reported by the media. A lot of people feel like research findings are blaming people for having gotten cancer. I have a hard time with that. I don’t feel blamed by research but then again, I was a researcher for many years. My particular case of breast cancer fits some research on risk factors. For example, I have a history of obesity and did not breast feed until after I was age 30. I understand the evidence against women under 50 getting mammograms and even agree with it. However, I was 46 and invasive cancer was uncovered by a routine mammogram. I did monthly self exams and annual clinical exams with my physician. Even after I knew I had cancer and the location of the tumor, I could not feel it. I know that there’s a concern about over treatment of breast cancer but as it turned out, I had four invasive tumors. Given that the growth of cancer is progressive, I would have preferred to learn about my cancer earlier rather than later.

I suspect that just as we do during different identity transformations in our lives, as breast cancer patients, we try on different concepts and struggle against outside definition from others until we feel weave a new spider web that makes sense, one in which we are connected with others but recognizable as the unique individuals we are.