Compassion and Cancer: Part II-How Cancer Changes Identity (Thought of the Day)

Stan Goldberg, PhD

We like to think life is on a seamless continuum, moving along, maybe in spurts and stops, but having consistency throughout the years, as does our identity. We’re the same person today we were last week and will be next week—at least that’s our hope. In Part I of this series I maintained that compassion may not be sufficient to help those of us who are living with cancer.

Cancer And Identity

I’ve heard assertions people diagnosed with cancer don’t change. He’s no different now after receiving a cancer diagnosis than he was before. All he’ll need to cope with his cancer is my compassion. Don’t underestimate the powerful effects of a cancer diagnosis. How we view ourselves—our identity—is based on many things: What we do, the roles we play, activities we enjoy, affiliations we have, the values that structure our lives, our abilities, and relationships. These things together form our identity—something unique for every person.

Eliminate even one significant element and a person’s identity changes. It did for me and many of the people I serve. For many of us, our life is divided into pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis time periods. Hearing you have a life-threatening illness is a wake-up call. The time left may now be measured in months. The Latin concept of “mañana” (not today), something we used to justify our life-long procrastination, evaporates.

Accepting the New Identity

Accepting a new identity because of cancer is difficult. Who we were our entire life changes with three words, and we feel our body betrayed us. I eventually accepted my diagnosis, treatment effects, and changes in identity, but it was neither easy nor linear. I vacillated between being a docile patient to the type of an annoying person I avoid. My interactions changed when I accepted the cancer wasn’t a temporary condition, it would progress, and play havoc with my identity.

Someone with a new diagnosis is still wrestling with a changing identity. Regardless of age, this is an unsettling time in his life. A younger person who thought he had decades left realizes it may be only years. The older person who thought he was prepared to die after a fruitful life realizes his “thinking” about death is not the same as facing it.

Identity and Time

The person with cancer sees who he is now, and compares the image to who he used to be and who he may become. You may be tempted to say, “But you are still the same person you were before the cancer.” Don’t, because most of us don’t believe we are, as it was the case with the husband of a caregiver I counseled with a diagnosis of bone cancer.

Even as the symptoms became severe and the treatment resulted in uncomfortable side effects, his wife kept reassuring him he was the same person she loved and knew for the past fifty years. He believed his body had betrayed him, and he was struggling with his place in a new world. He adored his young grandchildren and the highlight of every week was playing with them, often rolling on the floor, throwing baseballs, and pretending to be at a tea party. As the cancer spread, the pain from movement made it impossible to do any of these activities. He became an invalid and his involvement with his grandchildren was limited to reading, conversing and watching television. Instead of being the playful grandfather his grandchildren adored, he viewed himself as an old man waiting to die.

He knew he changed, although his wife insisted he hadn’t. “Funny Gramps,” as his grandchildren had called him, became “Gramps.” He viewed himself as a different person because his interactions with his grandchildren changed. His wife tried to reassure him the grandchildren’s love remained as strong as it was before the cancer. Instead of her assurances being helpful, he believed she wasn’t giving legitimacy to how the changes in his body were affecting his life.

Reassure the person your love and the love of others is still there. That’s the compassionate thing to do. But don’t minimize how the cancer or its treatment has changed their identity. We are not the same person after the onset of cancer that we were before. In the last part of this series I present ways of transforming compassion into helpful behaviors.

An in-depth discussion on the topic of compassion and cancer can be found in my eBook “I Have Cancer,” 48 Things to Do When You Hear Those Words, available on all online booksellers.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Becki Hawkins

    Great info Stan!! These articles you are sharing are so helpful to those at the bedside, those visiting, those who are afraid to visit because they don’t know what to say or not say, and for new oncology nurses!!
    Thank you!!

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thank you for you kind words Betty. I found we’re often most uncomfortable with things we’re afraid of. I hope my articles dispels some of the fear.

      Take Care

  2. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)

    This is an important and insightful article, Stan, and well worth sharing ~ which I intend to do. Thank you for helping all of us to better understand the impact of a cancer diagnosis, and to learn more effective ways of supporting those we love and care for.


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