When I was a teenager, I remember the anguish of my focus on how others saw me. I can remember a pink fuzzy sweater I wore to a party once, the sense of delight I had in the sweater at home, and then the sinking misery as I walked into the party and imagined myself through the eyes of the cooler adolescents in the room who seemed to be silently judging me. My own understanding of my reflection in the mirror changed as I imagined how they might be seeing me—not soft and lovely but lumpy and absurd.
Over the years, I grew out of much of that. By my 40s, I thought of myself as a fairly evolved creature who could keep her sense of herself firmly inside herself without leaking it out to others. But cancer proved me wrong on this too.
First of all, I noticed that I was wanting desperately to be a good patient. After one of my surgeries, I woke in the hospital in the middle of the night, in pain and nauseous, sweating and afraid. I first agonized about hitting the button to call the nurse—would she think I was hysterical? Overreacting? Would I be disturbing her? When I finally hit the button and she arrived, she was brusquely annoyed at how long I had let things go. Pain was the enemy of healing, and I had let it ramp up for unnecessarily long. I brooded afterwards about how I could win back her good graces before I caught myself in this futile and odd little diversion. Then somehow I felt chagrined that I had been trying to be a model patient, and chagrined that I had failed.
I felt it again when I went on a beach holiday just after chemotherapy. The light at the end of my chemo tunnel was learning to scuba dive with sea turtles, and we packed up and headed to a tropical paradise with palm trees and white sand beaches. It was too hot to wear my wig there, so I slathered my bald head with sunscreen and pulled on my sundresses and tried to feel liberated and hip. But walking into the dining room brought me back to that teenage party again—my reflection changed even to myself. I wasn’t a cool willowy woman expressing her freedom by rejecting hair and wigs. I was an object of pity, skeletal and bald, to the eyes that followed me, and I became that in my own perspective as well. My own teenage daughter—herself so connected to the world of social media approval—tried to get me to care less about the perspectives of others explaining to me that I should feel beautiful on the inside and not care about how I looked on the outside. Ah, irony.
Cancer gave me a perch to watch myself watching others watch me. Because my very identity was slipping all over the place, I could see the way it was shaped and molded by those around me, be they friends or strangers. I seemed more porous to the ideas and opinions of others as if some of my protective shell had been lost in the surgery where I lost my left breast or in the chemo that cost me my hair. Was this my weakened state? Or had cancer exposed to me a thing that had been true but overlooked (or even disguised) from me before? I grew to believe that I was always more porous than I had noticed.
I’m not sure that has changed so much in these last five years. Instead, I think cancer has just made me more honest about the way I care about other people’s opinions. I notice it now even as I write this blog. I want to tell you that I care about what you think, but I want you to know that I’m also still cool. And here’s the truth—some days I’m not actually so cool after all. Some days I care so deeply about how people see me that I cringe to see a video of myself or hear an “um” or a stumble on a podcast. Cancer took the shine off the story I was telling the world about myself, and I have never managed to put the shine back on.
And, maybe more surprisingly, I think this might be a good thing in some ways. Not because I want to have my self-esteem in the hands of others, of course. But because we are social creatures and we are made up by those around us in some important ways. It is a multiple perspective taking opportunity to see myself through the eyes of others. I will always be limited to the perspective behind my own eyeballs—unless I can also hold on to my imagined sense of how others see the world. And while sometimes when I see myself through the eyes of others, it makes me cringe, other times that vision is much, much more appealing than the vision of myself I construct by myself. And it’s bigger–by caring about how others see me, I also care about how others see everything. I get more in touch with a more diverse world, and more connected to how constrained my own perspective is. I think cancer has helped me be more honest with myself about both my limitations and my gifts.