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Cancer patients face identity changes through diagnosis, treatment

The Washington Post

June 13, 2022

Emily Veach

Cancer patients face identity changes through diagnosis, treatment

The identity of cancer patient is forced on a person as soon as they hear the diagnosis. With it comes a pause in their life and often a new perspective on mortality, along with a search for a new normal that might never materialize, cancer survivors and health-care experts say.

Aurangzeb Agha, 47, remembers adjusting quickly to seeing himself as a patient. “Initially, I thought I’d weather the storm and would get through it and get better,” he said.

He had ignored the blood in his stool for about six months, assuming the cause was hemorrhoids. When his wife urged him to have it checked, doctors found colon cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes.

A foot of his colon was removed in February 2020, followed by chemotherapy that lasted through October 2021. While many patients can tolerate chemotherapy, he experienced severe side effects. “By about June or July, I started to feel like I wasn’t going to make it,” he said.

Monique James, a psychiatrist, says becoming a patient is the first of three overarching categories of identity change in her patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The other two are the arrest of the person’s current stage of life — such as starting a family or stepping into retirement — and the changes to the roles of loved ones.

The period before and just after diagnosis tends to produce the most uncertainty and is coupled with a high volume of new information to be absorbed and acted upon.

“I hear a lot about what it’s like to have such a rapid shift in that identity,” James said.