Be Unique
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Be Unique

How a Cancer Pill Led Me to Question My Identity

Who am I when everything changes?

Image by the author (watercolor pencil).

Who am I?

This question has been pecking at my brain lately. Ever since my cancer diagnosis, really.

As a kid, I was haunted by, Do I really exist? But eventually, I made peace with the fact that I might be living in a simulation à la The Matrix.

I never questioned who I was before the diagnosis, though. I was who I was. Obviously! I was the person who always put work first and would one day be the best in her field. The person who would drastically change the world for the better — maybe it was curing cancer, maybe it was solving climate change, preferably both. The person who had a solid retirement plan, a plan for the countries she was going to visit, plans, plans, so many plans.

Then came the cancer bomb. And not just cancer, but the kind that gives you a few years of life expectancy. All those things I knew for sure shattered like the brittle china they were. As death (the only thing you can’t find a workaround for) tends to do.

If I am not the person who will do all those great things, Who am I?

Am I a career person like my CV shows?

Am I a writer or a painter or an actor or whatever artistic endeavor I’m into at the moment?

Am I just a reflection of those around me, of who they want me to be?

I later started thinking about my whole life and how my identity fits inside of it. When I was a kid, I stole toys from my friends out of jealousy. Is that who I am? When I was in University, I cried when I got a 17 out of 20 on an exam because it was too low for my standards. Is that who I am? In my 20s, I stayed in an abusive relationship for five years because I thought it was love. Is that who I am? I hope not. How embarrassing. I don’t even think present-day-me would be friends with those people. But if I say those people are not me, then that means I am also not the person who received a PhD, or the person who helped a refugee get a job, or the person who my partner fell in love with…

If I lost all my memories, would that still be me?

Now, I’m on a cancer medication that makes me feel, well, different — like I’m in love with life. Food tastes better. I used to love sleeping, and now I never want to go to bed. I have this tingly energy running through my body all the time. I’ve always loved being responsible and finishing tasks, and now I blow them off to paint and express myself creatively. I don’t even feel like doing what used to be my favorite way to pass time: watching Netflix. I don’t feel like doing anything I used to want to do.

I like this new me, but is this me? Why not? Because it’s not naturally me? Because it’s a chemically induced, temporary version of me, and therefore not valid? Just like the drunk version of me is not the real me?

Well, I have news for me (yes, because I’m talking to myself here): everything in my body is chemically induced. The thoughts I have are caused by neurons releasing neurotransmitters. My mood and emotions are controlled by hormones like serotonin and dopamine. When I’m hungry, I get cranky — is that not the real me?

What if I stay on these meds forever? Is it then that this becomes who I am?

What happens if I get on a medication that makes me angry or depressed? I bet then people will say, That’s not Lara. But isn’t it?

So I ask, one last time, Who am I?

I think I am the me at this very instance. All of it. The good and the bad. With all the chemical alterations that my drugs provide. Everything that I lived through, all the different versions of me, were steps to get here. I don’t think they were me. They were the people who had to be sacrificed along the way for me to become who I am now. And I (the present me writing this) am next on the chopping block.

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