My official title is “Dr. MacKenzie”. This is because I have a doctoral degree, a Ph.D. in psychology. In formal settings, I introduce myself this way. I also introduce myself this way to groups of children, for example, when I used to supervise my daughter’s classroom so that the teacher could have a break for lunch. I didn’t see a reason to introduce myself otherwise and further, I think it is a good example to girls to know that women can get advanced degrees.

My first job after getting my Ph.D. was a post-doctoral fellowship. When my husband was doing our taxes, I felt very diminished when I saw that he had listed my profession as “student”. And then I got really mad at him when he tried to justify it by saying, “What’s the difference?” I am not an unforgiving woman but I will tell you that I get hurt quickly at these times when the response is something other than, “Oops, I’m sorry. I will fix that right away.”

A long time ago, the term “doctor” became the name of a profession rather than reflective of whether one had a doctoral degree or not. The term “doctor” became synonymous with the perfectly excellent and specific name, “physician”. I don’t know when this started but my dissertation chair claimed that the doctorate, the Ph.D., goes back to the Middle Ages and that M.D.’s stole it.

Words matter but I am finding increasingly in my own professional life that it doesn’t matter so much to me. I am older now and established in my profession. I have a good reputation. I no longer live in the very sexist world of academia. In the clinical world, working with children and adolescents, being female is more desirable, generally. Lots of my patients’ parents call me by my first name. It’s not a big deal to me on a personal level. But it is a significant deal when it comes to my profession. People understand that physicians complete many years of training and education. A lot of people think that I have a master’s degree, which is a fine accomplishment, but on average involves five less years of training and education.

Similarly, words matter in the world of breast cancer. Most of us who have it are women and if we are paying attention, we have learned that sexist words matter, too. There are words and phrases in the breast cancer community that have resulted in people feeling diminished such as “survivor” or the war analogy. These words matter because they define us and impact the way others view us.

I don’t want to diminish anybody so I am careful with the words I use. But on a personal level, I don’t mind the terms “survivor” or the war analogy, even if I don’t use the latter in reference to myself.  I understand why they bother people and I empathize with that. And I am a firm believer in each of us having the right to self-define.

But there’s the tricky bit, if we don’t at least a little shared language and identity, having cancer can be even more lonely. And if we have too much shared language that doesn’t resound with us at an individual level, it is that lonely feeling we have even when we are surrounded by people. And when other people who don’t even have breast cancer tell us what our identity is, that’s just hurtful and maddening!

I know I have written about this time and time again but it is no wonder that the balance between connection and distinction is a major task for adolescent identity development.

Whatever we chose to call ourselves, I am so happy to be part of this community and wish all of you the very best of health.