Emotional Impact

Living with Cancer Has Taught Me What's Important in Life

Beth Brophy Health Guide October 28, 2005
  • One of the enduring lessons I learned from breast cancer treatment was that saying "no" can be very positive.

    Before cancer, I never felt entitled to decline other people’s bothersome requests. As a result, my life sped along at a hectic pace as I took on extra chores as class mother, field trip chaperone, party organizer, office help mate. Often I was imprisoned by other people’s expectations of me--to be Supermom, or Office Martyr or Perfect Hostess.

    Then I got cancer and faced six months of grueling treatment. My to-do list suddenly shrank to two items: get through the treatment alive and make sure my children weren’t basket cases. Everything else, from going to my office every day to grocery shopping, became optional.

    At the time, a good friend advised me that I should only do what I felt like doing. People would understand. After all, I had cancer. That was all the encouragement I needed. I stopped returning phone calls from people I didn’t feel like talking to, which was pretty much everyone, including all the loving friends and relatives who wanted to know how I was doing. My husband called them back instead.

    Before I knew it, I was dividing everyone I knew into two categories: those who gave me energy and those who sucked the lifeblood out of me. Obviously, a cancer patient can’t deal with the latter group.

    Eventually, this led to a few permanent changes. If someone drained the life out of me when I was sick, why bother with them when I was well? This line of reasoning eventually led me to quit a job I had once loved. While I was on sick leave, there had been a palace coup and I didn’t like the new people. And I missed many of the people who had been fired or had resigned. So I quit the magazine where I had been a writer and editor for 12 years. I became a freelancer, trading more flexibility for a lot less income.

    Having gone through hell, I felt entitled: To contribute less money to the family budget--what material things were worth being away from my kids so many hours every day? To buy the expensive version of everything for awhile--why deprive myself of small luxuries, such as hardcover books or Chanel make-up? To avoid people who got on my nerves, even if I hurt their feelings.

    Sure, there’s a thin line--and you may think I crossed it-- between being liberated from the daily jail of expectations, both self-imposed and other people’s, and just being selfish. But in my opinion, we’d all be better off if we grew more comfortable with the word NO. Those two little letters can be most life-affirming.