How I See Myself — and What I Call Myself — as a Man With Breast Cancer

Over the years, I have learned that self-image is an important part of the cancer experience and can change day by day.

I’ve lived on both sides of the cancer fence: first as a caregiver, and now as a survivor.

It’s interesting to me that during the four years when I supported my first wife during her struggle with advanced ovarian cancer, I never thought of myself as the “caregiver” in our relationship. This wasn’t because I didn’t accurately fit that role, since I was at her side every day during that difficult time. But in order to endure the anguish and fear that went along with aiding her in her survival, I somehow found a way to even out the stress that became part of our day-to-day routine. And I managed to do that by seeing myself as part of the cancer experience, rather than as just an onlooker.

The stark reality of her terminal, stage 4 condition was pushed to the background of our survival strategy, and simply finding a little something good in each day was the centerpiece of our relationship with cancer and with each other. I saw myself as her friend and partner rather than as a caregiver who was keeping her alive by feeding her at home through a food tube. I began to realize that how we see our own role in a cancer partnership is as important as how we see the other person.

After she died, I had a new role in life, and a new title to carry — this time as a widower. I saw that term on a variety of legal papers that I needed to deal with and have to say, I never related well to it. It only served to remind me that I had lost something and someone who was very important to me.

Words are powerful. Early on in my performance career as a stage magician, I received an Emmy Award for a television show that I had produced.

I was tagged with that monikerfor the rest of my working days. While I found it useful in the promotions for my programs, it created expectations that were unhelpful in many ways. What seemed to some to be a badge of success, to me, became an overrated distraction. I knew that I was simply a modestly successful magicianlike so many others in my business.

Eighteen years after my wife’s death in 1997 at the age of 47, I was diagnosed with my own version of cancer. Male breast cancer is one of the rare diseases that plague unsuspecting guys. The tagline I inherited at that point became “survivor.” It’s an appropriate description, of course, but that title also carries a lot of vague, emotional nuances that can either be helpful or distracting. 

It wasn’t long into my survival that I inherited yet another term of endearment that helped me immensely in my relationship with male breast cancer. I became an advocate for the disease as I felt an obligation to share what I knew with the other men who would follow me in the long line of breast cancer survivors.

In my world of male breast cancer, I see men describing themselves and survivors, warriors, patients, conquerors, fighters, advocates, thrivers and more.

So what’s in a name? Probably more than we can imagine.

Personally, I have always thought of myself as an adventurer on my expedition through male breast cancer. Like it or not, it’s a significant part of my life experience and one that I’ve learned to accept as I navigate through it.

In these eight years of living with my breast cancer, I’ve discovered that my self-image can change, even from day to day. So, I make it my daily goal to acknowledge how I’m feeling. Today I may be a survivor. Tomorrow I’m an advocate. The only title I don’t permit is victim. I like to ask myself, “Who would you like to be today?”

And the truth is, the choice is always ours.

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