Cancer Imposter Syndrome


After hearing others' cancer stories, I found myself feeling "less than" because I didn't undergo radiation and chemotherapy.

cartoon drawing of breast cancer survivor and blogger, Natasha Carlson

For all the emotional turmoil and shock that accompany a cancer diagnosis, I knew that I was incredibly fortunate when I was diagnosed with very early-stage breast cancer. It was found on my very first mammogram, before I had even an inkling that there might be a problem.

Of course, this blissful ignorance also meant that I was totally unprepared for the emotional spin cycle of navigating cancer treatment and eventual survivorship.

My treatment included eight cancer-related surgeries. This is not the typical story for a breast cancer patient. But I was fortunate in that I did not require chemotherapy or radiation therapy, like so many women do.

After I had completed my treatmentand I began to talk with others about their experiences with breast cancer, I began to experience what I can only describe as a very odd cognitive dissonance. I joined a support group for young survivors, and eventually became a state leader for that group. As a result, I spend a lot of time talking with other people about their experiences, their fears, their obstacles and their successes as they navigate diagnosis, treatment and survivorship.

It was after I began to have all these conversations with others that I started to feel…less than? This is the only way I know how to describe it. It was almost like I wasn’t deserving of calling myself a survivor, because my experience did not include some of the more toxic treatment regimens that so many people undergo during their journeys.

Though I have a medical background which certainly affords me the knowledge of what those treatments entail — and I have talked with many women both personally and professionally about their cancer treatment — I still felt like I didn’t belong in this group, like I didn’t deserve to complain or share my experiences with others because I had it “easier” than some other women. I wasn’t diagnosed de novo (with stage 4 from the start), I didn’t have to have chemo, I didn’t lose my hair, I didn’t need to deal with radiation burns… I felt guilty about my relatively good fortune, and I felt out of place when compared with some other people who had to deal with much more than I did. I also felt shame if I was struggling with something, and this dissuaded me from speaking out at times.

I began reading about cancer survivorship, and it was then that I realized that I was experiencing a common phenomenon, especially among early-stage cancer survivors: imposter syndrome. This tends to develop because of the somewhat irresistible urge to compare yourself to others, and how similar or different your stories, treatmentsand outcomes are. In the cancer community, if you talk to enough people, one unfortunate reality is that you will ALWAYS find someone who is worse off than you are. 

When I was initially diagnosed, and before I had found local support groups which were so incredibly helpful to me, I didn’t have anyone who I could turn to who really understood the inner turmoil and utter chaos that had descended upon my life after I was told that I had cancer. So I turned to the internet, where I eventually found blogs of people who had navigated the ups and downs of cancer. Those blogs were my lifeline during a very dark time. Brave souls, telling their stories in exquisite detail, laying it all out there for anyone to read, exposed and vulnerable. THIS was what I needed. Reading those stories, and learning that I wasn’t alone, proved to be extremely calming and healing for me. These stories provided a connection for me, proof that someone else had done this before me, and they were reaching out to anyone who needed it to show them that this was indeed possible.

I recently heard a quote from one of my favorite cancer activists and cancer magazine publisher. She said, “We need the stories – ALL the stories, from all the people, from all stages.” Yes. Yes, we do. Thank you, April. All the stories are valuable and necessary. Sharing our experiences is just one way that we can light the way for people who come after us, who now travel on the same path that we once walked. Even if we never meet them, or never even know that they read our words, writing and sharing can make a huge impact on someone else’s journey, and might even provide much-needed comfort and solace during a vulnerable and scary time.

I know it did for me.

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