Is Cancer A Gift?

senior woman hand at chin survivor secretsQuite often, people talk about their cancer experience in many different ways.  For some, they speak of the strength they’ve gained and how it changed their outlook on life.

For others, they talk about the devastation to their life and the impact it has had on themselves and their family.   How can people view the impact of a cancer diagnosis so differently? Is cancer a gift? It’s a question that warrants a deeper look and insight.

Indulge me in a quick story……..

I remember talking to a lady one day. Her name is Anne and she was in her late sixties.  On this day, Anne had her silver hair loosely hanging at her shoulders. She had a beautiful floral a-line dress on and she looked radiant.  I had known Anne for a number of years, as she was a client at my firm.  I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months and I had never seen her look so happy and engaged.  I wondered what had changed for her!

We spoke as we usually did and I complimented her on her vibrancy and how wonderful she looked.  Then, Anne explained why and as she spoke, the horrified look on my face must have given me away.  What she said to me next took me aback and took my breathe away.

I couldn’t have guess what would come next

Anne explained that her husband had passed away a couple of months earlier.  I am sure you can understand now why my face contorted in confusion.  In that split second, I tried to reconcile how the passing of her husband, of over 40 years, had given her life rather than taking it away. I just couldn’t make sense of it, as I thought of my own parents and the devastation they would feel.

I told her how sorry I was to hear about her husband’s passing, but as Anne went on I started to get a different level of understanding, although I could never begin to understand it from her perspective.  For her, it was much deeper as she explained, “I haven’t had a bruise since he died”.  She explained what her life had been like for the past 40 years and how she had chosen to stay for her own reasons.  She explained how this dreadful existence had ended with her husband’s passing.

Shock turned the empathy

Being horrified, quickly changed to feeling a very deep empathy for her.  I realised how quick I was to judge her, based on my reality—my experiences, thoughts and feelings.  In reality, I knew nothing about her or her life, until she shared her story.  She said that the shame and fear had prevented her from sharing her story earlier.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” -Brene Brown

Anne explained that she had found a way to exist, but now she felt that she was living for the first time in over 40 years.  She felt her life was worth celebrating now.  She certainly wasn’t celebrating her husband’s passing or the life she had lived.  She just felt that she wasn’t going to put off “living” any longer. She wanted her life to be about something different now, she wanted to write a different story.

Anne had found a way to separate the life she had lived and her experience, without judging it.  She was focused on living her life now, as a survivor.  For Anne, surviving was the gift that she had fought so hard for, for all those years.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Philo

Is cancer a gift?

For me, cancer was not a gift.  So many people die as a result of it every year.  So many lives cut short, that isn’t something worth celebrating.  Chemotherapy was not a gift, neither was radiation.  They were choices I made to give myself the best opportunity to survive.  In all honesty, who would volunteer to have toxic chemical injected into them, yet millions of cancer patients courageously do this every year because of their will and desire to survive.

Like Anne, I see my cancer diagnosis and surviving cancer as two very different experiences.  I think in some way her vulnerability to share her story, helped me when I was diagnosed.  I believe that our survivorship stories connect us, if we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to share them.

Is surviving a gift?

I think so.  I have learned everyone has their own survivorship story to connect to.  So many times I have had people say “yeah, but my story isn’t as challenging as yours”  My answer is always the same “but it’s just as personal, because it’s happening to you!”.   I don’t compare my story to anyone else but now I share it to connect with you.

“It is our survivorship stories that connect us all, if we can be vulnerable enough to share them.” – Gai Comans

Like Anne, I fought hard to survive and I did.  I feel my life is worth celebrating and I do that everyday.  I don’t judge how other people view their experience. In the end, I don’t really know anything about them, about their life or their reality.

In my experience, judgment gives rise to guilt and shame and I don’t feel guilty or shameful for surviving.  I feel grateful and I feel that I am finally living.  I feel grateful for whatever time I now have and do everything I can to help other survivors feel the same and to help them create a life they love, supporting them to process it, however it feels authentic for them.

A life full of survivor stories

Breast cancer was not the first experience I survived in my life and it certainly hasn’t been the last. I have survived many other experiences since then.  I don’t judge them as good experiences or bad experiences, just an experience that I had—and survived to thrive.

In the end I am just sharing my reality, you don’t need to agree or disagree, but thank you for reading it and enabling us to connect in some way.  What’s one thing you’ve learned from your survivor experience……..

Love Gai

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Is Cancer A Gift? — 23 Comments

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: The Spring Edition | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

    • Marie, thanks so much for including this in your weekly round up. It is an important question that enables us to understand different points of views when we look for the key messages with an open mind. Gai

  2. Gai,

    This is an excellent post, and you hit on a timeless topic. Your story about that woman sent chills through me. Sometimes life begins when a tragedy strikes. Like you, I do not believe cancer is a gift. Yet, survivorship has been. I could really relate to that story because after cancer, I found the courage to seek a divorce (although my husband was not physically abusive), and made many life decisions that made my life richer than ever. Of course, I also look at survivorship as a double-edged sword: I do experience the fears of cancer aftermath and survivor’s guilt.

    Anyway, here’s a blog posting of mine about how cancer expedited my divorce, and the hell of my marriage.

  3. Hi Beth,
    I took a look at your post and your story sounded familiar. Once diagnosed with cancer I needed to live my life for me, so much of my life before cancer had been about making others happy. Divorce soon followed a couple of years after treatment finished.

    Although the end of our relationship was sad, I have created a life with such joy now, I couldn’t have imagined we would have been able to achieve this as a couple. I wish him every happiness, but I’m happy where I am now.

    Love Gai

  4. It’s not cancer that is the gift. The gift is the realization that we, all of us, are mortal and we will all die. There becomes a sense of appreciation for life itself. The realization can lead to many wonderful experiences as we move forward with or without cancer. That’s the gift.

  5. Its not cancer that is the gift it is the survivorship – appreciating life and all of its experiences – appreciated just waking up every morning with determination to enjoy every minute of it no matter what it brings

  6. Thank you for opening up this conversation. It creates awareness about the cost of judgment – on many levels. Creating more consciousness about each person’s journey being unique – what treatments they choose, the language that aligns for them, etc. can only help to reduce judgment and increase a community of support for all those going through cancer.

    I’ve written several blog posts on related topics – on the language of cancer – – exploring terms like battle, gift, journey…. and one on mine is more than/less than – called Relatively Speaking – which aligns with your wonderful perspective that each person’s story is happening to them and it’s not about rating one as more challenging than another.

    Thank you for this thought provoking post. The more we increase compassion and lessen judgment, the more connected and supported we can all be.

  7. Hi Gai,
    I think you already know my thoughts on this one! I will never ever call cancer a gift. It’s not. Survivorship, of course, is another matter. Life is always a gift. Thanks for sharing Anne’s story and also for sharing your insights. Sharing, now that’s a gift too.

    • Yes Nancy, I always love our discussions and love hearing from women about how they view things. It opens my mind to learning and understanding different possibilities and points of view. Even starting this conversation has enable to perhaps see living life as the gift and survivorship as the avenue to create that. I know you have a post on this subject as well. Please feel free to add the link to this post too. Love Gai

  8. Thank you for sharing Annie’s story and for your feelings regarding the story. So true that we need to listen and not to judge and the personal lives that mean so much to each and every one. We are all survivors in a sense of something so any way that we can appreciate life and the miracles of life are so important. Thank you again.

    • Thank you Marilyn, I do feel that it is our survivorship experiences that we can tap into and use to connect. To honour that connection in each of us is one way forward. And of course appreciate life everyday! Love Gai

  9. Nice posting. Good comments. Thank you. Cancer was a gift for me. With an immediate shift in awareness, almost an altered state, the petty became unimportant and my priorities were ordered in way that was more consonant with my highest self. I became aware that every day was gift, rising with a lot of gratitude. There was a clarity for me. I also saw more clearly what was true for me for others – who was a support, who disappeared, who heard, who needed me to hear their story and take care of them. Staying present in what I had, even when it was difficult became a task of discovering the bigger me. All of it added up to growing, loving better, a fuller self. Breast cancer is not something I would wish on others or on myself. That said, it was a gift for me.

  10. Nicely expressed Erika, the shift in awareness is a remarkable gift isn’t it, as is the clarity of what it truly important. The spiritual journey to the highest expression of you can be a challenging one, although it is also the doorway to discovering who you are. As you say the appreciation of life that comes with this experience is certainly a welcome outcome.

    I made a promise to appreciate every day and great it with gratitude, it seems you may have a similar philosophy. Hugs Gai

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