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  • Writer's pictureBrad Thiessen

What Exactly Am I?

Comedienne Tig Notaro really got hit hard. Within four months, she came close to dying from a C-Dif stomach infection, lost her mom to a freak head-bump on a coffee table, then was diagnosed with breast cancer that resulted in a double-mastectomy.

As a person who made a living making people laugh, she faced a question of identity: could she still be a comedienne?

How do you tell silly jokes after going through a journey like that?

The first time she tried, it was a deeply-moving, vulnerable, awkward performance at a stand-up comedy show. As she says, Tragedy + Time = Comedy, and she hadn’t had time to process it yet.

A recording of that first night’s show was released and made her immediately famous.

You can hear the opening few minutes here.

There's also an excellent New Yorker article about her journey.

I was introduced to a somewhat-rearranged version of her story last year in the Netflix TV series “One-Mississippi,” then read her autobiography “I’m Just a Person” a few months ago. While the show and the book paralleled, I was still moved when I finished the last page. But that book title felt a little tepid.

“I’m just a Person”? What, did were they on a deadline and the editor made it up on the way out the door on a Friday afternoon?

It’s funny to have such a flat book title, because Notaro talks so much about identity and terminology around cancer. Her reflections are eerily similar to my own. She talks about how the idea of being called brave and using the terminology of battling is so troublesome, because it feels to her (and to me) that

a) she didn’t sign up for the whole ordeal; and

b) the prime requirement was to just not die. “It seemed that what people were calling courageous was simply the fact that I happened to still be breathing,” she writes

It bothered me that people kept telling me I was so positive. After a while, it made me angry. I didn’t want to have to be positive, but what was the other option? If I’m negative,

a) I get bad care;

b) maybe I get bad Karma;

c) I wallow and no one wants to be around me.

So, Cancer Fighter’s out. How about Cancer Victim?

That one definitely puts you in a bad place.

Cancer Patient? That one works, but only until you’ve finished treatment.

What about after the last chemo pill – who are you then?

A favorite term is “Survivor.” I may have shared on this one before. When you survive something, it means you made it through an event that likely won’t happen again: car accident, shark attack, hypothermia, fall from a balcony.

What about when you know it’s coming back?

If recurrence is statistically guaranteed, have you really survived? I’d say no. (And don’t give me that crap about “You don’t know – maybe it won’t. And anyway, we’re all going to die some time,” etc. Until you’ve gone through knowing you or your loved one is statistically going to die from THIS ONE THING FOR SURE, and SOON-ish, the reality of waiting for death to peek his gray-skinned face around the corner is abstract.)

If not Survivor, what about Cancer Journeyer, or Cancer Hiker … aw, hell, none of it works. I know I’m not the same person as before this all went down, but who am I?

Maybe us post-cancer folks don’t need a term. My friend Bill said his mom refused to display the pink ribbon, because she said her cancer didn’t define her.

Reflecting on his post-cancer journey, my friend Craig said, “The thing that gets you out of it becomes part of who you are.” Maybe that’s the best goal, the best outcome you can have. Be defined not by the Thing itself, but by the Good you use to make sense of it.

Running is getting me out of this cancer. Am I a Runner with a capital R? Writing is helping me make sense of it. I’ve always been a writer, but felt there was nothing essential to write about. That is no longer a problem. Am I a Writer now?

Authentic human connection is a strong theme throughout that Netflix show “One Mississippi.” The semi-autobiographical character played by Tig Notaro goes through a journey of learning to make authentic human connection.

Maybe that journey of connection is why she (or her editor) titled her book “I’m Just a Person.” Maybe learning to let herself be truly, authentically open to the people close to her was the most important part of her growth.

It’s clear that for me, getting through this journey and figuring out how to live with an open-ended due date will mean connecting authentically with people.

For whatever reason, that’s tough. I have a lot of defenses.

But if I can make those authentic connections and learn to continually widen that circle, and come out of this saying “I’m Just a Person,” that wouldn’t be so bad.

Cancer will still be part of me, but maybe it won’t have to define me.

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