By Gwen Darien
The Long View
By Gwen Darien
I was talking the other day with a photographer at a cancer conference about his mother’s loss of her hair due to chemotherapy and its subsequent regrowth. Our conversation vividly brought back some absurd as well as heartbreaking experiences of my own related to this most public sign of illness—and specifically cancer.
When my hair was about half an inch long, for instance, I finally discarded the black suede hat that I had worn after my hair fell out. I’ll always remember the woman who bounded across a grocery store shortly afterward to ask me, “Who did your hair?” Neither will I forget the significant number of men (of all types) who tried to pick me up when I was almost bald.
Recalling these moments also led me to reflect upon some of the challenges I faced as a relatively young cancer survivor. I was 36 and single when I finished treatment. Naively, I thought—or hoped—that I could just pick up my dating life where I had left off before I was diagnosed. But I didn’t predict how difficult it would be to regain a sense of myself in an intimate situation; I couldn’t trust my body not to betray me again. Or, how the fact of surviving a life-threatening illness would set me apart from my peers, as well as my friends of all ages. I know now that I didn’t have any idea then how my diagnosis would interrupt, and change, my career path—I was the director of a contemporary art center when I learned I had cancer.
Cancer is, in general, a disease of aging and most patients are more than 65 years old. Younger patients often face different issues and have specific needs. This issue of CR features a number of stories about and by pediatric and young adult survivors that explore their special situations and offer information about the expanding support services for these groups.
But then there are those of us who are in the middle—too old to be young adults, and definitely too young to be in the general cancer cohort. For us, some of the issues are very similar to those faced by young adult survivors: facing mortality at a comparatively young age, feeling alienated from peers, dealing with concerns about sexuality and family (whether partnered or single). But there are also concerns that are very specific to our ages at diagnosis. Many young adults are launching their careers and face serious difficulties in beginning their work lives. Meanwhile, we who are diagnosed in the middle may be in a different place in our career that can be just as vulnerable.
As more of us survive longer and longer, the issues faced by long-term survivors are becoming a much greater focus of research and support. I am now in my late 40s—fulfilled in my career, very happy in my personal life. But I have to acknowledge that arriving where I am now took much longer than I could have anticipated. I think that’s due, in large part, to an almost exclusive focus on treatment and little on recovery when I was diagnosed in 1993. With the current attention on survivorship issues, I hope—and believe—that those diagnosed with cancer today will benefit from a longer view of cancer’s impact on our lives.