Playing the ‘Role’ of a Cancer Survivor


A playwright with male breast cancer examines some beliefs that may influence our survival.

How we see ourselves in our cancer experience can offer a glimpse into what the future may have in store for us. If you’re like me, the view that we have of ourselves and our disease changes; sometimes minute to minute. Having cancer can become an all-consuming distraction to what we may consider to be a normal life. Certainly in the weeks that follow our diagnosis we can feel like we’re drowning as we attempt to rise above the fear or disappointment or confusion of having our world suddenly turned inside-out, while we attempt to regain a sense of balance.

In my case, once I was told I had breast cancer, I just wanted to return to those day-to-day experiences that defined who I was and how I felt before breast cancer interrupted the simple joy of waking up each morning with some sort of promise of a pain-free day ahead.

Do we see ourselves as victims or warriors; emboldened or discouraged? Are we aggressive in our battle or resolute in our willingness to accept things as they are? Do we fight or take flight? Do we curse the beast out loud for stealing our health and happiness, or reflect in silent, mindful meditation, knowing that all is well in the cosmos just as it is? We can be all these things. And we can often choose which part we want to “play” in our own show, on any given day.

With 20 years of laughter yoga, mindfulness and Zen meditation as part of my studies, I’m still astonished by the capacity my brain has to jump in and out of peace and tension, confidence and concern, fear of recurrence or the trust that my cancer is gone forever; and all of the highs and lows that we as survivors have learned to accept in our lives.

By addressing my “cancer characters” and recognizing that each of them has a different dialogue, I can remind myself that I am still the “director of my own show.”

A few weeks ago, I had a battery of tests to find out what was causing pain in my ribs, just below my mastectomy scar. I had bloodwork drawn; an ultrasound; visits with gastroenterologists; and a diet change. I was pleased when my condition improved and the tests found nothing, but you can be sure that every character in my cast showed up to give me their imaginary advice! One interesting finding was when the X-ray technician revealed that I had evidence of four healed broken ribs. I don’t recall any time in my life as an adult or child when my ribs were injured. I fell off my skateboard dozens of times, and I currently play racquetball ceaselessly. I even used to jump off walls and swung on ropes — but broken ribs?

There is some benefit to these “voices” that speak to us. In my case, while writing my stage musical about male breast cancer, I like to “hear” the characters interact in my head, almost as though I’m eavesdropping on a conversation as I write down their words. It’s often surprising what comes out in the way of fear, anger and denial, as well as the hope, humor and positivity in their words.It certainly makes writing authentic dialogue a lot easier.

The show by the way is called “The Surgeons of Solitude,” a cutting-edge musical comedy about male breast cancer. While written and scored over the last five years, it takes many years sometimes to get a show produced; so, don’t expect to see it any time soon. But one of those characters I keep hearing in my head keeps reminding me to never give up. And that’s the voice I’m listening to today.

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