Cancer has a way of teaching us poignant life lessons

Cancer has a way of teaching us poignant life lessonsI just finished reading George’s recent post on Evelyn Lauder, who recently passed away from ovarian cancer, and am still stirred by the passing of Patrick Swayze from pancreatic cancer and Elizabeth Edwards from metastatic breast cancer. There’s a reason I am a surgeon, and not a medical oncologist. Death has this bleak sadness about it, that eternal optimists like me have difficulties dealing with.

But still, as I think about these individuals and countless others who have faced cancer with courage and dignity, I think about the lessons they taught us.  One need only look to Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” or Steve Jobs’ address to Stanford University to see that cancer has a way of teaching us poignant life lessons that few of us realize until it’s too late.

I think about my patients who have, in the face of breast cancer, shown remarkable tenacity and done things even they never thought they could.  They find new meaning in life, and recognize how precious the time we have is.  They get out of bad relationships and into good ones, they stop dreaming of possibilities and start making them come true, they take risks, enjoy new adventures, and set purpose-driven goals that are truly remarkable.  And in the end, they inspire others in a ripple effect that goes beyond one’s wildest imagination.  One need only look to Susan G. Komen who, while dying of breast cancer in her early thirties, asked her sister for a simple promise that has now become a worldwide phenomenon dedicated to the eradication of the disease; or Ken Schwartz, who before dying of lung cancer laid the groundwork for the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare.

A friend of mine who is a physician and colleague, was diagnosed with sarcoma five years ago.  He tells me that, looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to him.  I’m not certain he felt that way at the time … but certainly, he tells me that he became stronger for it, with a clearer outlook on life and the practice of medicine than he had ever had in the past.

Perhaps more than anything else, my patients have taught me the value of life, of human connection, and that fundamental human kindness supersedes all money, status or power.  They have taught me that the human spirit has the ability to overcome even the worst adversity and to soar on the other side, that in every negative, there is a positive, and it behooves us to embrace that side.  They have taught me the value of living each day to its fullest, not putting off until tomorrow what you could do today.  After all, one day, there will not be a tomorrow.

In the meantime, they have taught me that each of us has the power to make a real difference to the world in which we live.  It’s a grim thought that one day each of us will take our last breath, and something on which I don’t often focus.  But every once in a while, things happen that make me remember the lessons my patients have taught me … and I am grateful.

Anees Chagpar is an oncologist who blogs at ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared.

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  • Anonymous

    What a wonderfully heartfelt post! Thank you so much for sharing this. It is true that cancer can be a great teacher. Most people I tell this to tend to not believe me, but my late partner, Ruth, and I would often talk about whether we would trade our experince with her cancer for not having had it. Even though we both knew she would die from it, neither of us wanted to trade the experience. Life was so much richer, previous stressors really were small stuff, and we learned firsthand the miracle of each moment.

    I know not everyone’s experience is like this, but we were blessed that it happened for us.

    Thanks again for this lovely post.

    • Denys Yeo

      You raise an interesting point here. I live with a life threatening illness and,
      as a result, I have had many insights about myself and the world around me that
      I am sure I would not have had if I hadn’t been in this situation. Overall, my
      life is richer and I have become much better at appreciating what each day
      brings forth. Would I trade this for a longer, maybe less insightful life?
      Actually, I don’t know; but I think, more importantly, we should accept that
      both are OK and that we should learn live the best life we can within the
      parameters of whatever external constraints might be impacting on how we can

      • Anonymous

        Amen, Denys, I totally agree. I think you can’t know until you get there (a life-threatening situation) but it’s important to live the best life we can no matter what the circumstances. And that’s not so easy, either, but at least we can raise our awareness about it.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this post. I, too, work with cancer patients/survivors (and am a survivor myself) and learn so much from the people I work with. I love what you said about the value of human connection and fundamental human kindness…so true. I can’t say that cancer was the best thing that happened to me, like your friend did, but I know that I am stronger and I see things differently now.