Cancer takes so much, but can its passage give back anything good?

Three months ago, Anne finished chemotherapy.  She is tired, overweight, anxious and her feet burn.  Anne sleeps poorly, cannot concentrate at work and her relationship with her husband is distant, let alone intimate.  In my office for a “survivor’s” visit, Anne asked the glaring question. “Will I recover?  Will I ever be the same?”  After a moment of thought I answer, “I hope not.”

Okay, I was not really that cold.  What I actually said was more like, “Well, what you are going through is tough.  You are recovering from a terrible disease and even harder therapy.  But, with time, you will get stronger and feel much better. It will not be easy, but you will gain energy, appetite and sleep well.  You will be able to laugh again and enjoy your family.  There will be up and downs, but you will get back to living a full life.  But, will you be the same?  No, you are changed forever.”

There are many natural passages in life.  Starting day care or kindergarten. Your first date.  Bar Mitzvah or Catechism.  Graduations.  First job. A distant move. Marriage. Children. Retirement.

There are the bad passages, which we try hard to avoid.  Failing at school.  Being fired.  Being dumped, rejected or divorced. The sudden death of a loved one. Our house burning down or being robbed. These are crises, which tear at the lives we know, in ways we would never wish.

Each passage results in profound changes in who we are and how we see life.  Passages are not just openings to another room; they are journeys to new worlds.  Good or bad they knock us down, and force us to pull ourselves up.  Moreover, the cruel reality exists that when we see a light at the end of the tunnel, it may be an oncoming train.

Life threatening disease is an unwelcome and terrible passage.  No sane person gets up some morning and says, “Gee, I hope I get acute leukemia so that I can understand myself better, prove how tough I am, build close relationships with autocratic strangers and better appreciate the sweet moist smell of morning leaves or the brilliance of a baby’s smile.”

Nonetheless, the battle against cancer or other illness is transforming.  It remakes us from the top of our head, to the bottom of our souls.

Mostly, we could do without the change.  There are gentler ways to learn about life.  However, once there, once cursed by disease, we change and not all of it is bad.  Much is confusing, requiring us to re-evaluate our world.  We have to discover who we are, and how we are different.  We learn lessons about ourselves, the people we love and life itself.  To push that idea just a little further, I would suggest that cancer patients work so hard and suffer so long, that they deserve to gain special wisdom.

So, without being callous, I do not wish that cancer patients return to the people they were.  I hope that in trade for their struggle they gain new knowledge, grace, balance and perhaps peace.  Maybe they will come to understand a purity or beauty in a particular relationship, a fulfillment in their work, honesty in thought or simply the vital ability to just say, “No.”   The dreaded disease takes so much; I hope that the passage gives something good, if just a little.

James C. Salwitz is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Teresa Brown

    No disrespect, but I would prefer to have gone back to the person I was: a nurse working in oncology, living independently. Instead, I have had multiple surgeries for complications r/t chemotherapy. I’ve had to give up my job, my car, my apartment. My peace of mind is long gone.

    So yeah, it’s a nice, warm and fuzzy sentiment, but whatever cancer has given me can’t begin to make up for what it has taken.

    • Lisa

      I agree with you, one hundred percent.

  • Lisa

    Cancer has not given me much, as far as I can see. I am not a better or nice person after undergoing cancer treatment, I am not more patient and am not more appreciative of my life.

    I am left with chronic pain from surgery, lymphedema, and residual side effects from five years of anti-hormonal drugs. All this for a cancer that did not require chemotherapy, caused no symptoms and was not all that aggressive.

    • Teresa Brown

      Lisa, I’m so sorry you are also suffering from the side-effects of cancer. It’s a monster, not a blessing. I’m sure the author’s comments were well-intentioned, but to me, telling cancer patients that their disease has blessed them in some way can prevent them from feeling like they can’t talk about the struggles they’re going through.

      I can’t tell if the author is also a cancer survivor. If he is, I admire his ability to take something so negative and turn it into a positive. If not, then I think he’s putting an awful burden on his patients.

      I wish you well, Lisa, and hope your future is free from recurrence of this “beast.”

      • Lisa

        Thank you, Teresa.

  • Anne-Marie

    Some of the lessons I learned from the cancer experience were good. But let’s be honest here: I paid a huge price for it, and given the physical, emotional, social and financial effects I’ve been living with for the past 20 years, I seriously question whether it was worth it.

    Friends, family, oncologists, the general public – they all need to realize that it’s not helpful when they try to spin cancer into an opportunity for personal growth. We don’t need those expectations laid on us on top of everything else.

    If you really want to help us, why not do something about the dismal state of survivorship care in the U.S.?

  • meyati

    It turned me into a rattlesnake or a time bomb. What’s good about that? I have a rare incurable cancer. I’ve had people in oncology-nurses, navigators, different types of social workers comment that care for me takes away resources that could help cancer patients. I had strep for 5 months, because my sore throat, fatigue was blamed on my age and radiation. I finally found an old doctor-88-that did MED 101: sore throat =strep test. I have to fight to keep from being dismissed from care-they’ll call me later-or bluntly say they don’t do cancer—ridiculous when I’m in for a sprained ankle, a splinter in my pinkie-whatever.