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Breaking Free from the Cancer 'Victim' Mentality


After a cancer diagnosis, a person's identity may change. Often, one may choose to identify with familiar cancer terminology such as "patient," "survivor," or even "victim." These identities can form a lasting positive or negative impact on a person's life.

Once upon a time, I used to be a strong, independent, fun-loving person. Those who knew me often complimented me on my independence, self-assurance and determination. It had taken many years of life experience to mold and shape me into the person I’d become, and I was proud of my identity. But the day I was diagnosed with cancer, everything changed. All of a sudden, I didn’t recognize myself any longer.

Going through tests, scans and surgery, I found my identity shifting from that of strong, self-reliant individual to that of weary, frightened patient with cancer. I looked like a patient, I acted like a patient, so surely, I was one. I allowed medical staff to care for me in my time of need. It wasn’t difficult to learn the parameters of this new identity.

After leaving the hospital, although I still considered myself a “patient,” I also picked up another identity. This new label was more prestigious as I chose to see myself as a breast cancer “survivor.” Having endured two surgeries for breast cancer, medical personnel had bestowed the honor upon me. Proudly, I received that badge of honor and pinned it on my chest.

The identity of survivor was more difficult to master than that of patient. There were many new lessons to learn. I was unsure of how to cope with the trauma I’d experienced. I had no idea how to accept the physical changes to my body. I didn’t know how to live as a breastless female in a world full of “normal” women, and I certainly didn’t know how all of these things tied together would affect my marriage. It was a challenging and difficult time, but I managed to learn and grow from each challenge.

Wearing the badges of patient and survivor, the new identities gave me clout in the world of cancer. But as my chest puffed with pride, the old me was slowly slipping away. I was forgetting my true identity.

Over the following days, months and years, changes continued. Before long, I found myself adopting another identity. Instead of calling myself “patient” or “survivor,” I’d shifted my perspective and began calling myself “victim.” This label seemed to fit best of all — especially since I hadn’t given cancer permission to decimate my life. It had come unexpectedly and had been most unwelcomed.

With the victim label pinned tightly to my chest, I began to notice changes in my way of thinking. No longer was my outlook positive. No longer did I work hard at survival. As a victim, I allowed myself to look at life negatively. Soon, I found I wasn’t in a very good place.

Though I never wanted to be known as the girl with cancer or even the girl who had cancer, there’d been no choice in the matter for me. Simply stated, it was what it was. And, I had to accept this new reality.

But why did the word “victim” seem to fit so well?

The word “victim” conjures up the image of a person whose rights have been violated, such as those who’ve endured violent crime or perhaps those who’ve been injured in an automobile accident. It’s easy to feel sympathy for them because one can immediately understand that someone else was to blame for the inflicted wounds. But not many people associate the word “victim” with cancer, even though cancer is to blame for traumatic changes to a person’s life.

But let’s take a moment to take a look at a victim mentality. How do victims think? What do they feel?

  • A victim usually feels powerless over their situation.
  • A victim may feel helpless to change or solve their issue.
  • A victim may see their problem as a traumatic or catastrophic event.
  • A victim may feel they have been treated unfairly.
  • A victim has a hard time letting go of the past.

All of those feelings are valid and understandable definitions of a person with a victim mentality.

For the person with cancer, the self-imposed victim label can offer a sense of identity, albeit slightly skewed.

When I chose to label myself as a cancer victim, I milked it for all it was worth. Feeling that cancer had robbed me of my true identity and had instead replaced it with the character and personality of someone I didn’t know, it was evident I’d given everything I had to give. But one can only wear the victim label for so long. Eventually, it becomes extremely heavy and cumbersome, weighing down a person so much that daily living becomes next to impossible. Sooner or later, the person reaches a breaking point and decides enough is enough. It is at that point when a reclaiming of identity takes place.

For me, reaching that day didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of introspection, positive self-talk and prayer to break free from the victim mentality. With huge effort, I made the conscious decision to refuse the stigma placed on me by others — that I was fragile and weak.

Be careful when labeling yourself. Consciously or subconsciously, we all pin labels to ourselves, but those labels don’t always reflect our true identities. No label can truly describe a person’s value and worth.

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