“Cancer is the story that set my adulthood into being,” is how Ann Wallace describes her journey with ovarian cancer in “A life less terrifying: The revisionary lens of illness” (Spring 2016, Intima). Cancer transformed her, gave her a new identity. Cancer also set my adulthood into being, only the cancer wasn’t my own. My dad’s sarcoma left such deep scars on me, for awhile I was sure everyone could see them. I was jealous of my husband for having the audacity to possess two healthy parents. I carried loneliness and bitterness that surfaced unexpectedly.
Right after my dad died, I read online that typical grief should last six months to one year. Ok, I thought, in a year I’ll go back to being me again. Only that never happened. For years, I waited to feel ‘like myself’ again. Finally, it occurred to me that I couldn’t go back to who I was, to what Ann calls the “old normal”. I needed to re-vision my life and figure out a way forward.
Once I began to accept this, I started sharing my story with others. It was hard to do. Partly it seemed like an admission of defeat – a physician who couldn’t even help her own father. I met a lot of people around my age that lost parents. With them, I voiced my secret fears and laughed about the strange realities of death. My bitterness and isolation began to diffuse.
Until recently, the platitude of a silver lining angered me. I now have to admit, there is one in my case. Suffering through Dad’s illness and death made me a better doctor. At work, I started asking patients about their life stories and their priorities. I wanted to know them as people, not as diseases that needed to be fixed. More than anything, I wanted to show the students I worked with how a relationship with a patient begins with listening.
Cancer was responsible for converting me from a child to an adult, but that wasn’t the end. I write, reflect, and continue to shape the adult that I am.
Allison Larson is an Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at Boston University School of Medicine. In addition to 30 peer-reviewed scientific articles, she has published narrative medicine pieces in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology and the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. She is particularly interested in how experiences of grief and loss shape and change us.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine