Can Getting Breast Cancer Make You Happy?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Is it Elizabeth Edwards, Robin Roberts, Tony Snow, and other public figures fighting their personal cancer battles–in the national spotlight–that has provoked the recent spate of cancer articles in the national media? Maybe it’s the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Komen for the Cure®, and a posse of other less visible (but no less active) organizations pounding out the cancer message. Whatever it is, cancer has been the darling of the airwaves and newswire in recent months, with major articles appearing everywhere from Time and Newsweek to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which recently featured cancer as part of its front page “Six Killers” series.

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    Most of these articles focus on the physical aspects of cancer: its causes, prevention, the road to a cure. But a recent article in the Times took a different tack: Can getting cancer make you happy? That’s the question writer Jane E. Brody posed in that paper’s health section August 14. And the answer, according to Brody’s interview subjects, is a resounding yes.

    Former NBC news correspondent Betty Rollin, along with former First Lady Betty Ford, helped bring breast cancer out of the darkness of shame and into the light of acceptance. Rollin’s 1976 book, “First, You Cry,” was an initial step towards building the public awareness and acceptance breast cancer has today. Rollin has continued to write about her cancer experiences, and in her latest book, “Here’s the Bright Side,” speaks of “an astonishingly bright side within darkness.” And she’s not alone.


    Lance Armstrong, in his book “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” writes that “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me… I wouldn’t want to walk away from it.” And he hasn’t, parlaying his hard-won fame as a seven-time Tour de France cycling winner into even greater visibility as a cancer advocate.

    Have Rollin and Armstrong had an easier time with their cancer battles than most of us? Apparently not; Rollin lost both her breasts in two bouts of cancer, nine years apart. Armstrong’s testicular cancer spread to his brain and nearly killed him, as did the treatments. Yet both are truly happy to have had cancer. How many of us can say that? That we’re happy to have been through this horrendous, life-threatening, debilitating experience?

    I can. I’ve said almost exactly what Armstrong says, numerous time–to friends, family, newly diagnosed cancer patients. Cancer is one of the best things that ever happened to me. If you feel the same way, you understand why. If you don’t, you probably never will. But here’s a short answer: Cancer is like a “do over” in sports. Just hit your golf ball into that water hazard? Here, try another shot–no penalty. However you managed to screw up your life pre-cancer, living through the experience gives you a second chance. To do it right. To find out what REALLY matters, and to go after it. To whittle down the priorities in your life to those that you care deeply about, and to drop the rest. When you take the time to look into your heart–and facing death gives you a huge impetus to do that–you find the real you. The person who’s been there all along, The one who’s comfortable in her own skin. And once you find her, you understand that life doesn’t have to be complicated. It can simply be lived. And loved.

Published On: September 17, 2007