What would you think if, having been diagnosed with cancer, someone told you, “Someday, you’ll be glad this happened.”
Disbelief? Skepticism? Resentment at optimism gone totally awry?
Yet it’s true. Many cancer survivors approach the rest of their life with an outlook that’s more positive, hopeful, and grateful than what they possessed pre-cancer.
"Breast cancer is something I would have requested, but I'm a happier person since my diagnosis," she says. "I'm thankful that, at 67, I'm in a really good place. I've accepted the fact that we're all mortal... There are many diseases worse than breast cancer — like Parkinson's, ALS, and Alzheimer's. I'm fine with my breast cancer diagnosis. I'm really at peace."
Melanie, and the other survivors quoted in this post, are members of an informal support group called TGIF. Founded a dozen years ago, we’re over 70 women strong. Some of us meet the first Friday of the month for drinks (thus the name); others, living farther apart, stay in touch via email. I recently asked the group to tell me something positive about their breast cancer experience.
Kit was one of the first to respond. She says,
“My positive is now having less of a focus on what I don't have (and/or stress related small problems), and more of a focus on and appreciation for what I do have. I’ve also really enjoyed connections with other strong, resilient cancer survivors, who have passed on important tips for really living life.”
Cathy, agreeing with Kit, added,
“Facing cancer made me fully prioritize what was important; the small things/stress/issues simply don’t become consuming. It’s easier to let go and work with what you have, what contributions and changes you can make. The important thing is to live each day with the awareness it can change; this keeps me focused and thankful for what I do have.”
Patty is a three-time cancer survivor.
“The living life piece is huge! I've learned to not let setbacks be termination points in the paths I choose to travel. Taking control of feelings and decisions, and not always being reactive, has helped me enjoy the present and not focus too much on what might be next. I enjoy the company of friends, but I’m at peace alone too. Bottom line — my first breast cancer fight taught me how to pursue what's right for me.”
Dani says she’s learned how to deal with worry.
“From cancer I learned that being scared and worried ALL the time robs you of the good moments: enjoying a laugh with a friend, a walk in the sunshine, or eating a warm cookie. You need to have those moments free of the black cloud of worry that cancer brings. I've learned to think through the bad stuff, then put it in a box. It will always be there for me to take out and ponder. But while it’s in that box — sunny days are sunnier, time with friends is brighter, and cookies taste better.”
Some women have mixed feelings about any happiness cancer’s brought them. Meredith says,
“Cancer has made me more grateful for the love and joy I have in my life, and less concerned with whatever-it-is that I don’t have. I think that gratitude is the fundamental, deep basis for happiness. Therefore, at some level, cancer has led me toward happiness. Against that movement toward happiness, you have to put the fear of the yearly checkups, the anxiety about every new ache and pain (is this IT?), and a lot of other things. I think I could have achieved gratitude in less painful ways.”
Still, I want to close with my own thoughts on cancer, which are 100 percent positive. It I could go back in time and choose whether or not to have cancer — I’d say bring it on! Cancer has taught me what’s truly important (family and friends), and what’s not (the small irritations of daily life). It’s introduced me to scores of wonderful, caring people I’d never otherwise have met.
And cancer has taught me a key lesson: There’s nothing you can control in life except your own attitude. When bad things happen, as they inevitably do, you can choose to see an undeserved disaster — or just one more opportunity to prove your strength, patience, and grace in the face of adversity. The first choice will bring you pain and resentment; the second, satisfaction and joy.
Which choice will you make?
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Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.