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Cancer Survivor Identity Crisis: I Am More Than My Cancer(s)

While cancer may be a part of a survivor's identity, there are other aspects, too.
PUBLISHED August 25, 2016
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at,or
I identify myself as a two-time cancer survivor, and yet, I am more than my cancers. How much is it “OK” to identify with being a cancer survivor, and how much might be too much? How often do I tell people about it after active treatment? How often should I wear those pink t-shirts? How much should I participate in the breast cancer month of October? Sheesh, a whole month? Really, I will want to hunker down during that month and hide. All cancers matter, as I think any breast cancer survivor knows.

It is good to be vigilant about cancer-related health issues. It is good to make healthy eating choices, exercise, take care of mental health and keep up on the research specific to one’s cancer. But how much time and effort on these things is too good—too much? The to-do list of things for cancer survivors can be taunting, daunting and exhausting. How often does cancer float across my mind? Every day. How often do I want to cry or rant—much, much less often the further out I get from each diagnosis. At this point, I am just worried and weary.

What about the rest of my identity? Who am I now? I am not just a pink t-shirt cancer survivor. In fact, I rarely wear mine. Within cancer survivors, am I typecast by the kind of cancers I have had? I am a breast cancer warrior and a melanoma fighter. Yes, but …

Should cancer survivors only hang out with their own cancer group by type of cancer? I don’t think so. Many of the thoughts and feelings and struggles seem similar across types of cancer. That said, I sometimes find myself and other survivors doing this typecasting thing, even to each other within the broad umbrella of cancer. Look at the Facebook support groups if you wonder about this.

In terms of my cancer identity, I am not just talking about how others, survivors or not, perceive me. I am talking about how I see myself. I think it is good to remember the other things that I am, like a Christian, wife, mother, daughter, speaker, writer, smart mouth ... I am not going to let cancer “win” by giving my “cancer survivor” identity more attention than it deserves. Nope.  

Cancer is a disease that can come back down the road and possibly kill me, yet it is still a disease. I had a disease. I will not give cancer more time, power or attention than it deserves. Well, at least I will try not to do that.

In fact, this disease, this brush with our own mortality, offers cancer survivors a good chance to figure out who we authentically are and what we want to do with our limited windows of time here on the planet. I hope that friends and loved ones of cancer survivors remember to support the whole person, too. We are more than cancer survivors, so much more. Right?
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