Posted by: gaylejervis | January 12, 2011


Kitty has been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphona and will be starting aggressive chemotherapy that will hopefully save her life.  Kitty is a main character in the show, Brothers and Sisters and initially tears came to my eyes as she said courageously to her husband, “I will not let this cancer define me.”  He looked at her, love in his eyes, proud of her strength and her conviction.  I immediately begin worrying,  “So do I let my chronic illness define me?  Am I strong like her?”

Before I went to bed, I was drawn to the internet and googled, “Illness defines us” and I read several people’s responses to that statement.  In the following website, a journalist who underwent a double mastectomy and endured chemotherapy is quoted as saying, “”I would hope we can take our cancer experiences and turn them into something positive and life affirming,” she said.  “And not to let cancer define you but to take this opportunity to let you define yourself.”

In another article regarding women with breast cancer, one woman commented, “When other people see me they don’t know I have it, They don’t know I have cancer so I don’t allow it to define who I am”. The writer of this article continued, “ They all say they don’t allow their diagnosis to define them. Instead, they choose other labels. Mothers, daughters. Workers. Women of faith. “ My relationship with God, my family, my friends, the people with whom I work,” said Sheila Margolis.

As Michael J Fox says, “Parkinson’s doesn’t define me, it’s just one part of my life.”

My further research lead me t0  read a blog from a woman with diabetes who writes, “I don’t like my chronic illness to define me or dictate what I can’t do. As I prepare to start a new work/life week, I leave you with the idea that life isn’t all work and no play. Say yes to smelling the flowers, pick up a hula hoop, blow bubbles. Find the balance of work, work, work, Live, live, live, laugh laugh laugh! Be willing to try new things, new experiences.”

Oddly, as I continued reading these responses, I began to gravitate toward the view that “Yes, indeed my illness defines me.” Whenever I am not able to go to a wedding and recently  to a funeral due to health problems, my health defines me.  My health defines me when I cannot engage in certain activities with my family and friends.  My health defines me whenever Greg and I discuss traveling but opt to stay home or opt to go on a short flight to Phoenix where I spend most of my time in the condo that we rent.  My health defines me when I look at the increasing pile of clothes in the laundry room and I must wait for a little more energy to approach the task of folding and ironing.  My health defines me when I would like to have  a regular Sunday dinner and invite family over and I know I can’t.

In some of the articles above, these people are still working which says a lot about their illness.  Yes, they are sick but this one diabetic blogger describes a hula hoop class she is attending as an example of how she doesn’t let her illness define her.  She can  get up in the morning, get showered, get dressed, go to work all day and then, go to a hula hoop class??!!  I can feel the creeping of green envy as I consider her  “limiting” lifestyle!  Of course her illness doesn’t define her!  She can still perform various roles and activities without her illness hovering over her.  There is not one moment of reprieve that I experience in a day when I am not aware of my pain or fatigue – I just have varying intensities.  There is not one moment of reprieve when I can plan an activity without recognizing I may not be able to attend.  There is not one moment of reprieve when I know I can’t drive  to Beaumont – only a 20 minute drive to visit my daughter and daughter-in-law  -since I don’t know if I will be strong enough to drive back home.  How can this illness NOT define me ?

I have decided that the more important question is “HOW does this illness define me?” Does this illness overpower me and fill me with anger, resentment, depression, and futility?  Does this illness define me as someone filled with self-pity and self-centredness?  Or does this illness remind me of what is important in life?  Does this illness draw me closer or further away from God, family and friends?  Does this illness increase my empathy?  When I looked up the meaning of the word “define”, the dictionary states that one of its definitions is “make up or establish the character of”.  For example, the “football team defines their identity.” I believe that after 13 years of experiencing severe fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, this illness has indeed defined my identity.  The question is whether it has created someone who I want to be.



  1. Great post! I agree completely. I went for years trying to make sure this illness didn’t define me. The result was frustration when I couldn’t follow through with plans, or stress when I couldn’t deliver on work deadlines. I ended up getting sicker. After a year of therapy, I learned to accept my new reality and work within the constraints that my illness places on me. I’m still just as sick, but my emotional state is much better.

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