After A Cancer Diagnosis, You’re A Better Person, Right?

After a cancer diagnosis, you’re a better person, right? 

Hmm. Not so fast. Cancer is a horrible disease not an enlightenment program. Yet, there is often an unspoken societal expectation that suggests a cancer patient should be transformed into a new and improved version of her/his former self following a cancer diagnosis. And if not, why not? 

I know this expectation to be a better person post diagnosis is out there because this very thing was the topic of a support group meeting I attended a while back. (I go to more than one, so there’s anonymity here).

At the meeting, we went around the table and each person was supposed to state how she was now a better person post-cancer diagnosis. Immediately upon hearing that request, I felt uncomfortable and began fidgeting in my chair.

When my turn came, I couldn’t help myself. I went ahead and stated that I don’t think I am a better person post cancer diagnosis because, well, I’m not.

Everyone just sort of gave me one of those looks.

You know the look, the one that says; well, that’s not how you’re supposed to do cancer.

If truth be told, in some ways I’ve gone the opposite direction.

Physically, this is true without a doubt. My body has taken a dramatic hit in too many ways to count. My stamina has taken a hit; so has my strength, range of motion, weight, bone health, body image and hair, to name a few more.

Aside from the physical, among other things, I might very well be less patient, less willing to conform, more easily distracted and far too  more opinionated.

I’m not the same person in many ways, but yet I am.

After my response, someone sitting next to me at that meeting then said to me, “Well, it must be nice to have always been such a good person.”

I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment…clearly we were not on the same page, or even in the same “book”.

And that’s fine.

I was never a nasty person, and I certainly don’t think I am now, or at least I try not to be.

Before cancer, I like to think I was a decent human being trying to do the right things, most days any way. I still try to live that way.

For the most part, people are probably not all that different after a diagnosis than they were before.

Sure, big changes come as a result of a diagnosis; we might learn, grow and adapt, but deep down does the core of who you were/are change all that much? Probably not.

And without a diagnosis, a person still (hopefully) learns, grows and adapts doesn’t she?

Before cancer, some people are saint-like, some people are jerks and most are somewhere in between.

The same is true after a diagnosis.

Cancer doesn’t necessarily transform a person into a new and improved version of yourself.

The thing about this unspoken expectation is that it insinuates there should be some great life lesson to learn from having cancer. It implies there should be some great epiphany or sudden enlightenment about the meaning of life or whatever. Maybe there is, but maybe there isn’t.

In my mind, this borders on the cancer is a gift thinking which frankly, is beyond my comprehension.

Perhaps it’s true, that after any life-changing experience, one might have a greater appreciation for life in general, or for the fragility of it anyway. Many attest to being more compassionate, less judgmental and more willing to reach out to others following a diagnosis. I like to think I am as well. Who doesn’t?

And it’s certainly true for many (me included) that after a cancer diagnosis things change dramatically.

You can’t go back.

But to assume somehow because of cancer you become a better person…I don’t buy it.

Somehow, this expectation feels like yet another cancer obligation a person is supposed to fulfill, and going even further, I think this expectation might potentially be harmful to a person’s well-being.

Cancer doesn’t miraculously make you better, or worse, for that matter.

You are who you are.

Cancer or no cancer, we are just people – all of us flawed, living and learning each day as we go along.

Hopefully, we all try to be the best person we can be each day. Hopefully, today and every day, we all try to be a bit better than we were the day before.

I say, let’s not give cancer credit for that. 

What about you?

Do you feel there is an unspoken expectation to be a new and improved version of yourself following a cancer (or any serious illness) diagnosis and if so, how do you react to that? 

Do you feel you have changed for the better post-diagnosis and if you do, do you give cancer credit? 

Have you ever felt as if you were “doing cancer” (or any illness) wrong?

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 After a Cancer Diagnosis, You're a Better Person, Right? #cancer #breastcancer #health #mentalhealth #cancersucks


83 thoughts to “After A Cancer Diagnosis, You’re A Better Person, Right?”

  1. Nancy,

    Perfect post . . . so well-written—SPOT on! “You are who you are.” So far, what post-diagnosis has done for me is realize that perhaps I cared too much about what people thought of me far too often. Maybe that made me “appear” kinder or more tolerant of personalities pre-diagnosis . . . I don’t know. But what I do know, is that now I find myself caring less and less about how “the world” perceives me and more and more about those who REALLY matter in my world. Though I’m light years away from perfection, I feel relieved in a sense — less obligated to be or act a certain way for the sake of appearances. “I am who I am.” Take me or leave me . . . life here is too short to worry about minutia.


  2. Hi Nancy,

    I loved the video and am a fan of Barbara Ehrenreich. This post is a really thought-provoking one. I remember you telling me about that support group experience when we met for lunch.

    I’ve changed from breast cancer (who hasn’t)? In some ways, my life has changed for the better. I made some life changes I would never have made pre-cancer. I divorced (prior to cancer, we were married 16 years). I adopted a child, I became more social and have many, many more friends. I savor life more because I know that life is too short.

    On the other hand, my life has changed for the worse. I have panic attacks, am scared to go to doctors, have body image issues, medical problems from extensive surgeries and treatment, and am more jaded, bitter, and angry — especially about a culture that promotes positive thinking.

    Like many going through a serious illness, I was told to think positively. I have nothing against having a positive outlook on life, but connecting positive thinking to health outcomes is downright inaccurate. I felt burdened by the positive thinking mantra.

    1. Beth, Exactly, sometimes (not always or for everyone) the positive attitude mantra does become a burden. And I certainly have changed in many ways, but have I become a better person post diagnosis? I don’t think so. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Nancy,

    You know how I feel about this! I’m in the bullpen with you! 😉

    I went back to find my “cancer ain’t no gift” post and you were the inspiration behind writing it. That made me smile!(

    I have no idea what that woman in your support group meant by the comment, “Well, it must be nice to have always been such a good person.” But being honest is the reason I blog. There are enough things in my life that I feel I must gloss over or handle appropriately or whatever; BC isn’t one of them.

    Thanks for another terrific and honest post!

    1. Renn, I just re-read that fabulous post of yours. I completely agree with what you wrote. I think that’s my biggest issue with this “better person” idea. It’s just too closely tied to the “cancer is a gift” thinking, which just doesn’t work for me personally. It never will. Thanks for chiming in and thanks for sharing your link.

  4. This is a very insightful essay, Nancy. You have portrayed a stereotypic expectation placed on patients who have more than enough to contend with. I wonder if medical counselors inadvertently assume “cancer makes you a better person,” out of some subconscious differentiation of those with cancer from those without. That tactic does not just cast a halo around patients, but it serves to chill their speech if their opinions don’t fit the “perfect patient” script. Our society’s collective failure to boost research in metastatic breast cancer makes clear we need more advocacy, not silence.

    1. Carmen, You make some excellent and very important points. Sometimes it does seem as if there is a certain way one is expected “to do” cancer. Every person’s case is uniquely their own and no one should feel silenced. I agree that the “halo” chills speech and glosses over reality, or potentially can. I also completely agree that we need more advocacy, not silence. Thank you for your comments.

  5. Excellent article Nancy…why should cancer (or any other life threatening disease) suddenly make you into a better person…you know, I often wonder if this myth has come about to ease the realities of cancer for others, to make them feel that cancer isn’t so bad if it can bring the best out of people. It also has the effect of making us more uncomfortable about complaining or daring to moan about things. And how do you define “better”…whose values/views do we assign to this word? I know I have certainly changed, post-primary, and now with secondaries…whether I am a “better” person is irrelevant…my goal is get through this crap as best as I can can and on my terms. Thank you for a great read. Amanda x

    1. Amanda, Excellent points. Thank you for making them! As you and Carmen both mention, this myth does potentially create unhealthy/harmful silence for some. Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words.

  6. Great post, Nancy! I think you do cancer right.

    I keep feeling like people think I’m doing cancer well. Do you they think I’m a better person? I suspect so. Maybe I’m a little more mellow, more patient, but not so much with my Sweetheart, who bears so much of the burden of my diagnosis (Stage IV). My fear of dying is all tied up with my expectations of him as a future single parent. That’s a heavy load on top of the physical burden of work I can no longer do, plus his own anticipatory grief, not to mention his own illness. If only we could truly accept my oncologist’s advice and stop worrying.

    Bottom line, I’d give anything to get back to my pre-cancer life. I was a decent, if flawed person then… Who worried about less important things.

    1. Kate, Your life has changed in so many ways now with your stage IV diagnosis. I’m sorry for all those burdens you (and your Sweetheart too) carry every single day. I think this is one more instance where those with late stage cancer get left out of the picture. I think your bottom line says an awful lot. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Nancy:
    How do you do that? I just had the conversation with a friend this morning, that I am a different person post-treatment. I realized that I gave and gave and gave and gave (personally and professionally) and I can’t do it any longer. I have just enough to take care of me and my three young children. When my brother said “I would be shocked and stunned if indeed you did not have an hour to give to my girlfriend,” I replied that I did not have an hour to give to a girlfriend! Ha! I am shocked and stunned dear brother that I didn’t see you for over a year (except at mom’s house for the holidays)while I went through treatment. Am I a changed person? You betcha! Forgiveness is on the horizon ~ just not today.

    1. Deb, It’s certainly understandable that you simply must prioritize your time and energy. Some of the changes cancer brings cause a lot of family turmoil don’t they? Hopefully your brother will eventually better understand where you’re coming from and why. Thanks for adding to this discussion.

    2. Deb, You hit the nail right on the head in speaking of your brother. I, too, have a brother, 3 years younger than I , he is 51. He never once called me when I was in treatment. He is a very selfish person, anyway. I guess his selfishness really stood out to Me when I became sick with cancer! Heaven forbid anything happen to him physically (bad) but I know that I would be there for him. I am mostly hurt from how he reacted to this…

  8. You hit the nail on the head with this one! So interesting how people at the group were instructed to make statements about “how they were better people post cancer diagnosis.” Talk about leading the witness! Those cultural scripts can be so oppressive and yet well intentioned people don’t even realize the pressure these kinds of scripts can put on others. I just listened to an interview with a man who has metastatic colon cancer, and he said, “There is no purpose to cancer: it is an affliction.” I thought that summed it up well.

    And it’s also not surprising that a major life event would/could have an impact on someone. Changed but not changed, as you say. If we are reflective people, we WILL learn something from our experiences. Cancer, or no cancer. At least I hope so. But it doesn’t have to be (and probably isn’t) the sole shaper of our lives.

    Great food for thought, Nancy. Thank you.

    1. Gayle, Those cultural scripts can be quite oppressive. I agree with the colon cancer patient’s assessment of his situation too. Of course, every major life event has an impact on how we evolve as a person, but as I mentioned, this better person thing borders too closely on the cancer is a gift idea. Works for some, but not for me. Thanks for your insights on this, Gayle.

  9. Great thought provoking post. There’s no right or wrong way to “do cancer”. I don’t understand the person’s comment to you about being a good person before at all. What the blank?
    Was this “support group” and I use the word support loosely because support groups are about helping each other grow. There is nothing wrong with the question but everyone has a different experience as a result of cancer. I do think things change especially based on treatment for the disease because of lasting side effects and I can’t imagine myself saying oh how fantastic getting treatment for breast cancer is. I am so glad I went through chemotherapy and losing my hair was such a phenomenal experience. You haven’t lived until you go bald. It’s so freeing. And when I lost my nails especially while taking a bath when my big dead toenail floated to the top of the water was so much fun. I loved the surgery. You haven’t lived till you get your breasts chopped off. The bills are so much fun too. My best friend who went through chemo with me died because of breast cancer. Do I thing breast cancer made her a better person? Sorry but I don’t think she is better off dead. She would get my off beat humor.
    On the other side, I am different and I am grateful to the people I have met and continue to meet since I became a patient advocate with a non-profit to run. I am passionate about what I am doing but I am doing all of this work because I don’t want others to have to have to have cancer. I’ve had too many special friends and family who have had cancer. I am not happy about those who have died from the disease.
    I went to my new MD and her nurse said to me I am not like most people who have been through breast cancer. I asked her what she meant and she told me that I had a very outgoing positive personality. Was cancer supposed to make me crabby?
    Anyway you sure got me thinking Nancy. Great post!

    1. Susan, I’m glad I got you thinking then! I loved reading your comments, especially the question about you being crabby! ha. Thank you for sharing.

    2. Love this! You took the words right out of my mind! Lol…Although I keep thinking to myself, “Was I given a second chance at life?” I had 4th stage vaginal cancer and went through 9 months of chemo. It was the worst experience of my life. It’s gone for now…. So now what? I’m still trying to figure out why I’m still here… Alot of people don’t make it out of 4th stage. I’m grateful, but I keep questioning it…..why me??

  10. Nancy,
    Great post and great discussion going already. I liked the Barbara Ehrenreich video. Her “Welcome to Cancerland” essay is a good read if you haven’t seen it before.
    Many of the cancer patients I know, myself included, will tell you that they changed in ways that only a disease like cancer and the treatments and surgeries that come with it can change a person. I don’t see anyone volunteering to be a cancer patient, do you?
    For me,some of those changes were very difficult and some were personally transforming. I think the push for only the positive, pink cloud attitude is such a disservice and puts pressure on people to feel a certain way. Anyone who understands emotional healing understands that ALL the emotions need to be recognized and honored for what they are–part of that individual’s unique experience.
    I think the term “better person” is a slap in the face too. Was I such a bad person when I had fully intact breasts and a youthful sense of security?
    We all evolve and change as we age. Why is cancer considered an accelerant? (If you are one of those who doesn’t die from it?) Don’t tell me how to feel. I won’t tell you how to feel. Deal? But please do tell me about how you are feeling and I will tell you how I am feeling…no judging, just listening. That’s real support.
    With all that being said, I also am compelled to say that I believe a positive outlook on life and an attitude of gratitude have been a tremendous help to ME and MY VIEW of the world.But I was working on that long before cancer came along.
    The positive outlook that works, in my opinion, is the internal one. (That’s why they call it outlook isn’t it? The way I look out at the world around me.) Not the external one imposed by a culture full of fear that wants to believe “cancer is a gift.”
    Thanks for the forum and thanks to those of you who have already shared your insightful and thought-provoking comments.

    1. Lisa, Thank you so much for your articulate and well-thought out comments. You always add wisdom and balance to the conversations. Thank you again.

  11. It seems people have false expectations of those of us who don’t share their views. How on earth can something that can potentially kill you make you into a better person?? That is the stupidest concept anyone in the right mind could think up. I have changed I have problems sleeping, I have constant chronic pain, I too have panic attacks but I don’t dare tell anyone because they just don’t get why. I am supposed to be according to them and certain groups grateful, I am supposed to be positive don’t carry around a negative mood or your cancer will come back..That’s like being told when I first had my period, it had something to do with having a baby Grade 7 having a baby?? Meee? So I kept smiling the first while accepted all the crap people told me till I had had enough.. In many ways I have become more reclusive because I just don’t want to be around those who don’t even try to understand how difficult this is. I rather be left alone than patronized,,We didn’t come out of this as *Superwomen* with extraordinary super powers! For the most part we have come through on our resilience, The need to live not to have to prove ourselves with some made up B/S that cancer has made us better people.
    I’m still a good person by heart but just don;t piss me off with Cancer is GIFT editorials.. I am libel to smack you….

    Love Alli xx

  12. Well as you might expect, I beg to differ. But it’s not all black and white as Susan insinuated. Nothing is. I don’t see how you can go through something as life-altering as stage IV cancer – or any cancer for that matter – and not change.

    I believe I appreciate life and the people around me more than ever. And I have much less tolerance for bullshit because I know life is short. I would have never written a book, do a blog or leave a toxic work environment if it weren’t for cancer. And I’ve made (and sadly lost) many friends because of this common connection.

    And yes, I’ve changed for the worst, too. I hate worrying about dying young, of not being there for my daughter and husband. I hate the fear that arises when I get an unusual pain or am coming up on a scan. And as I said, before, I’m a little less patient with people who complain about their lives when I’d give anything to just have mundane things to complain about.

    So there’s a lot of gray to this issue. People and life are complex.

    1. Tami, I agree with you that things are not black and white here either and I also completely agree that cancer brings changes and mighty big ones at that. I think Susan was being sarcastic while making her points. She specifically mentioned that everyone has a different experience. I do take issue with the sometimes implied message/expectation that one somehow comes out of a diagnosis a new and improved version of one’s former self. I think that’s unfair, silencing and potentially harmful to some. That’s the point I was trying to make in this post. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts here, Tami.

  13. dear nancy,

    i am so sorry you were the brunt of a sarcastic and mean comment from that “support” group person. but it sure opened up a very relevant and spirited conversation!

    how each person sees themselves, both during and after the breast cancer experience is a view that is unique and personal, and is influenced by unique and personal attitudes. i agree with those who contend that people who were highly influenced by scripts – whether from pink-washing, cultures that value stoicism, or religious influences that tell their followers that personal suffering is part of some grand plan – are most vulnerable to seeing cancer as “an opportunity”, a “blessing in disguise”, or, even some form of punishment for sin. those scripts are undeniably powerful and i think they tend to stifle rightfully felt outrage at the effects of suffering and loss.

    i guess we are the lucky ones. we have each other to rant and rave with, to give support and validation for the whole gamut of feelings and attitudes without judgement or sanction.

    the moderator of the support group you attend asked a very faulty question. had she asked something like, “what are the changes you see in yourself since being diagnosed with breast cancer?”, i wonder what THAT might have led to?! i also wonder what scripts she was exposed to that created that sort of agenda.

    nancy, this post was exactly RIGHT ON! thanks so much for giving us the chance to think and to learn.

    karen, TC

    1. Karen, Thanks so much for your kind words and for your valuable insights. There are a lot of “scripts” it seems, especially breast cancer ones.

  14. Soooo glad you posted this (sorry late to the party, am behind in reading and such). This is a recurring theme on my blog…cancer only makes it more so…I am still the same person I was, only more so,especially in my posts: Punk Rock Cancer and Cancer as PMS.
    Love the Jon Stewart link, I loved BE even before I got cancer, and before I was aware she had cancer too (I used her “Nickel & Dimed” as reference-recommended it even–in my former job-pre-cancer.
    In some ways maybe I am worse and more judgmental than before cancer. And having been through more hardships than the average Joe,maybe I am allowed to be more judgmental–my life experiences are heavier than most. But maybe that is unfair, everyone I face has been thru things I cannot imagine. I try not to judge others, but they damn well better not judge me either. I therefore remain as curmudgeon-y as I was before this mess.

    1. Cancer Curmudgeon, You are still the same person, only more so… interesting way to look at it! Of course, you’re right, everyone goes through their own set of hardships. We could all stand to do a bit less judging. Thanks for adding to this discussion.

  15. I love this, Nancy. It really touches a nerve. There seem to be expectations from some that I am a better person post-diagnoses (three of them), but I don’t see it that way. In fact, now I feel like a taker, asking people to do things for me. I was always such an independent person. Metastatic cancer has changed all that. But I just troop on. Thanks for the brilliant writing. xo

    1. Jan, You are one of the kindest souls I know, Jan, and I’m pretty sure you’ve always been that way. I’m also pretty sure no one sees you as a taker. You keep on troopin’ on my dear. Thanks for the comment. Your thoughts mean a lot to me.

  16. Hello Nancy – I hope you don’t mind a comment from a lurker who’s not from the world of cancer, but heart disease.

    What you’re so beautifully describing here seems to be a universal sentiment found in many life-altering diagnoses, including among heart attack survivors. I wrote about this very thing a couple years ago in “Does Surviving A Heart Attack Make You a Better Person?”

    So glad you mentioned Barbara Ehrenreich, who can call a spade a spade in the most laser-like fashion, particularly about her experience feeling she wasn’t “allowed” to express fear or anger or any negative reaction to her own cancer experience.

    Too bad she wasn’t at your support group table when that woman made her entirely unnecessary “must be nice” comment. Barbara would have no doubt delivered a well-deserved and deliciously nasty smack upside the head. 😉

    When survivors say things like “If I hadn’t been diagnosed with XXX, I never would have ____(fill in accomplishments here)”, they may not realize that statements like this merely confirm unspoken societal expectations that if you or I or any other patient have not yet ____(fill in accomplishments here), then we are somehow not as evolved or noble or as “better” as we really ought to get.

    I suspect people who have a platform to voice their patient experience (writers, speakers, bloggers) hear this “better” reference most often. But as my friends in PR tease me, after three decades working in the public relations field, writing, speaking and blogging is just what happens when a PR person survives a heart attack. It’s all I know how to do.

    And I have no doubt that had I been diagnosed with cancer, or lupus, or kidney disease, that’s what I’d now be writing, speaking and blogging about. That sure doesn’t make me a “better” person than I was.

    In fact, you have no idea (or maybe you do!) how often I think: “Okay, I’d like my old life back now. Pleeeease…”

    Or as the wonderful Jessie Gruman writes about her role as a patient advocate:

    “I would trade that commitment in one hot second to not have been sick in the first place.”

    Keep up the good (but not better!) work, Nancy!

    Kind regards,

    1. Carolyn, Thank you so much for commenting and for sharing the link to your terrific post. I love it! It seems you and I think alike on this one! That quote from Jessie Gruman says it all. Thanks again for sharing your well-thought-out insights. You are welcome to comment any time, as is anyone, cancer or not.

  17. We are simply individuals and we each integrate our cancer into our lives our own way. Further, the way we deal with it can change over time. I was diagnosed a year ago. I have observed my own experience over this year. I had a period of adrenaline high for a couple of months right afterwards when the world was in full technicolor. I can’t say that I became better, but it did change my daily experience and mindfulness. I also made a lot of positive life changes in terms of exercise, diet, and managing stress.

    But there is also the grief. I was 46 when I was diagnosed. I don’t dwell on, but do feel the loss of feeling secure with my health. I did not expect have a serious illness in this time in my life. It could happen to any of us and facing that reality is scary.

    Thank you for posting about this topic.

    1. Elizabeth, I think you described your experience very eloquently. Cancer does transform one that’s for sure. I appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.

  18. I’m a little late on the uptake on this one, Nancy, but wanted to say thank you for this post. I ran into a “cancer is a gift” conversation recently, and had to navigate that…ugh. Loved this article.

    1. Dawn, Oh yes, the “cancer is a gift” convo comes up now and then doesn’t it? I’m wondering how your navigation went… I’m glad you liked this piece. It sort of over-laps with the “gift” idea. Thanks for your thoughts. And by the way, there is no such thing as late here!

  19. I ran into this a little late, too. I so appreciate your post.
    Cancer changed me in many ways. As you said, some good and some bad. And I would even say in some ways the good and bad is in the eye of the beholder. I stand up for myself more, now. Certain people in my life do not see that as a positive change, myself and certain others do.
    What does the vague “cancer made you a better person” mean anyway? Cancer is just a terrible disease, one of many tragedies and struggles we face in life. Choices you make about how you will how you deal with it emotionally and spiritually may make you a better person, but the disease itself cannot. Would these same people say, “going through your (parent’s, spouse’s, child’s) death has made you a better person?”
    By the way, when someone has a specific change, like a friend who said that I just seemed to have a calmer more peaceful spirit these days, and another who said I seem to have a deeper faith, that somehow seems totally different than the vague “better person” comments.

    1. Elizabeth, There’s no such thing as late here! Yep, cancer is just a terrible disease. Let’s not give it credit. And yes, I agree about the specific change vs. generality-type statements one so often hears. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Great points, Nancy! I totally relate to Nicole’s comment that I care less about what others think. Cancer stripped away the fear of failing (and replaced it with a different kind of fear!), and I try to live by the “don’t sweat the small stuff” mantra.

  21. Nancy,
    You are spot on, although my experience started a bit earlier, when I was going through surgery and treatment. I was one of the first women in my peer group to have breast cancer. One of the mothers at my daughter’s school said to me one day, “You are a poster child for coping with cancer with grace and dignity.” If she only knew! I pulled it together for my daughter because I understood how important it was for her for me to look and act a certain way when I came to her class. Often when I was out in public, I felt like I was under a microscope. People, friends included wanted to see me chin up, pressing forward,fighting the good fight!
    This continued in the way you have described in your very insightful post. People due to their own need–not yours-want to believe that their is something positive about cancer, that going through it isn’t so bad and that you come out the other side having gained something. I have learned that I have to be true to myself and live my life for the people in it who count. Living up to other people’s expectations and needs…too exhausting, too unnecessary and you run a race you can never win!

    1. Lisa, Yes, the comment that mother made was certainly well-intentioned, but… As you said, living up to other people’s expectations is far too exhausting. Cancer or no cancer, we all need to be true to ourselves and live our lives as such. Thank you so much for reading and sharing.

  22. Nancy this is spot on. Like Marie this is exactly what I needed this week. Am I a better person because of cancer? Cancer keeps harming and killing so many people that I love. The only thing I can think of cancer in relationship to a gift is the saying that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
    That doesn’t mean that it takes away from the incredible people I have met as a result of cancer.

  23. On your post the other day I felt a bit attacked. I re-read all the posts and you were right. No one was directly attacking me. It just seemed that by suggesting that I sometimes felt like jumping up and down that I was doing cancer wrong! It can go both ways.

    Someone even said something about all that ‘happy bullshit.’ I guess rightly or wrongly took offence to that.

    As in that support group, I’m shocked that there was pressure to say how you were a better person post cancer. Some people feel that way, some do not. And everything in between. No one is “wrong” – it’s very personal.

    Any pressure or criticism of how others should or shouldn’t feel, behave or not behave is strange in my opinion. Must we all conform to one way of feeling, doing or being? If we don’t hate the all things pink, does that mean we are blind to the ugly realities of breast cancer?

    And if we don’t feel like our lives are any better after cancer, does that mean we are missing something? But if we do, is that wrong? There are no right or wrong ways of being and doing cancer unless you tell others how to feel or be after a cancer diagnosis.

    1. Lauren, I’m sorry you felt attacked, though I don’t think that was the case. And no, of course, no one needs to conform to anyone else’s way of doing cancer or anything else for that matter. That’s one of my main points and not just in this post, but all the time. You’re so right, there is no right or wrong way to do any of this stuff. Some of us do sound a bit passionate about our opinions sometimes, but that’s because we ARE passionate! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. They are always welcome here.

  24. Excellent post. Hope you don’t mind that I shared it on my Keeping A-Breast Cancer Lessons Facebook page. Your thoughts and words deserve a larger audience.

      1. Just think — if we were all better people after cancer, pretty soon the world would be full of wonderful people! After all, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will experience a cancer diagnosis sometime in their life. (Read in “Emperor of All Maladies.”)

          1. Still, it would be nice if we all suddenly became wonderful people, wouldn’t it? Or should I say “more wonderful?” 😉

  25. A more provocative question would be, “How has cancer changed you?” I’m sure that most people would be able to respond with both negative and positive answers. No one should be forced to put a positive spin on everything. I work with Alzheimer’s clients and there is the same expectation for them. It’s okay to be sad about what you’re dealing with, to be resentful of those who aren’t, to just be angry at the universe! But, hopefully, you will also find acceptance for what you can’t change and an appreciation for all of the blessings you still have in your life. The greatest gift we can give someone is not to try to make them feel better, but to support them as they simply feel.

    1. Sheryl, You are so right. That would have been a much better question to ask. Your last sentence is quite profound. Thank you for sharing it.

  26. Hey Nancy – I’ve been thinking about this post, and if being a cancer survivor makes you a better person, what happens to patients with mets? Are we UNREAL awesome, or do we really suck?

    I say that tongue in cheek, of course, but when you think about her statement lends itself to the ridiculous.

    1. Lori, Someone else just mentioned the same thing to me. Yeah, I guess you are way beyond merely ‘better’ – you are unreal awesome for sure! Saying this tongue in cheek, too, of course. ‘Course you are awesome, but you know what I mean…

  27. Hi Nancy! Here is my take on this thread: For me personally, cancer has been horrible and wonderful. It is my worst life experience to date, but it has also given me some real gifts such as numerous and rich connections with other cancer survivors, speaking engagements, mentoring opportunities, and a CAREER in writing and editing. My hair is better, my eating is better, my fitness level is better, etc., Now, if my cancer returns, I may just ditch the whole “gift” angle, but right now, after almost 10 years of survival, I can appreciate the nuggets of goodness. As many have said, there is no right or wrong answer to the question. Everyone’s experience is different, and no one should be judged for how they change or do not change during or post-cancer. I think there is great value in hearing all perspectives!

    1. Jacki, I know what you mean. There are, of course, some good ‘nuggets’ that come along, but calling cancer a gift. No way will I be doing that. Not gonna happen. For me and my family it is not a gift.

  28. I agree, Nancy. Whoever you are pre-cancer is who you are after. Do we grow from the experience? Hopefully, as with anything we go through, particularly the hard stuff. I know I take care of myself more than before. I’m much more aware of my limits and boundaries because cancer forced me there. And I’ve also learned some valuable coping mechanisms because the pain forced me there. Cancer has definitely been a platform that provoked profound change, some of it welcome and some of it not, but as for me as a person, I’m still me.

  29. I agree. I am the same person I was before cancer, and I find it hard when people try to make me into some kind of hero for having survived. Newsflash: Many (too many!) people go through a much more hellacious time, “fight” harder, and die anyway. My survival thus far can be put down more to dumb luck than anything. And while I’d like to think I make more effort to live a full and healthy life now, sometimes that’s not true.

    I would say the biggest lesson I learned is that everyone deals with this (and everything else) in their own way, making the decisions that are right for them. No one has the right to say how anyone else should or shouldn’t feel or react because everyone is different both in perspective and in the way their bodies react to treatment.

    And no, cancer is not a gift. A gift is something you’d like to share with others, and I’m certainly don’t wish cancer on anyone!

  30. Nancy, I feel the same way. I hated when people said “you got another chance, don’t waste it…” (as if I was wasting my life before c) or “you should make some changes in your life now…” Well yea, I am going to start by removing you (the person saying that to me) from my life. Who needs them? This also falls under the “expectations” in cancerland, which also contributes to the “guilt” many patients feel.

    This is also part of the “I wonder what you did to get c” language in a way. “So you better straighten your life so it doesn’t happen again,” right? Hate all these languages and expectations people have.

    As far as changes go, I am somewhat the same, but every emotion is stronger than ever before. Each. One. Of them. No patience. What used to take me days to decide, now takes me seconds, for example.

    I guess I’ve adjusted. Everyone does or else we stay children forever.

    1. Rebecca, I know. It’s not like we were wasting our time before and taking everything for granted. So many presumptuous things are assumed/implied. I do think I’m less patient now, too, among other things… Thank you for reading and commenting.

  31. Yes! This spoke to me on 1,000 levels. My cancer was stage 1, colon cancer at 40. No chemo, no radiation. Lucky, huh? THEN I went to one cancer support group after treatment and was told it was not the right place for someone like me, since I didn’t get the “full cancer experience”. Become a better person? I think I became more real and less willing to deal with BS and drama divas, which has made a big difference in my level of life enjoyment and made room for more people with integrity and substance. So, on that level, life is improved. But as far as taking better care of myself and doing all of the preventative medicine recommendations, I slip up consistently. I’m tired of screenings, tired of colonoscopies, tired of being the butt cancer poster child in my community. But, because early detection saved my life and can save others, I put on the mask and walk the walk and talk the talk to inform.

    1. Mimi, I’m glad my post spoke to you. It’s horrible that you were not made to feel welcome at that support group meeting and told you didn’t have the “full cancer experience”. I’m sorry. There are many people wearing that mask you speak of. And don’t be too hard on yourself for slipping up. You are only human. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  32. I am not a “good cancer patient” but fortunately, I still believe I am basically a good person (as you noted about yourself). The diagnosis and treatment has only put a magnifying lens on some “issues” I had before – I am impatient, I am prone to anxiety – especially when by myself with no one to hold my hand or talk to about what is happening in the moment, I am a real stickler for being honest and “realty =based”- meaning I have lost patience and despaired many times of the course of this treatment at how many people want to paint rosy pink faces on things and also *Pretend* what is going on is not really going on. I hate that. (Concrete example: Tried several times to discuss what my treatment/ life is like with a friend. She ignored most of what I said and kept wondering why I was lacking in stamina (???) In our conversations she waited for me to make jokes (I am a jokey person), or decided to minimize stuff by suggesting for our annutal get together that we go backpacking while I was in chemo (I mentioned that) and she said “Oops I don’t know anything about Cancer and stuff” I guess people could ask, or just google (chemo) So, the evidence was clear – I’m not such as good cancer patient as eventually I just lost my patience over this and so many instances like this with others. I now don’t even know who to consider a friend anymore. To have any to stand by you through a rough time would truly be a rare gift. I have changed and now want to seek out new people with volunteering and community activities, but will be VERY cautious and just consider them acquaintances, that I can do some fun stuff with. I

    Lastly, I am a “Bad” patient as I have ALWAYS asked *** too ***** many questions to my providers, needing details and such. I have needed their patience to proceed slowly and clearly as it was usually just me in the office taking notes. And many of them didn’t have the time for that. Sometimes, I actually showed my disdain for them NOT having the time for that. BAD PATIENT! right? Oh, well, I hope I due to BC I have LOST my need to win any popularity contests, cause that ain’t happening !

    Thank you so much for your insights. Love Barbara Ereinrieich too.

  33. Great post, Nancy. I think I expect too much of myself in this way because I expect cancer to have made me a braver person. I’m going back to work soon and I feel like the things that made me nervous before should be no match for me now. I mean, having meetings with clients isn’t as scary as cancer and it certainly isn’t life threatening, so having dealt with cancer I should now feel better about everything else that isn’t so bad, right? Those are the standards I held myself to the first time around eight years ago, but I hope I know better than to expect so much these days! Cancer has made me more grateful I think, and more impulsive/likely to do the things I want to do sooner. But it hasn’t changed me fundamentally as a person – I’ll always be an introvert who isn’t so comfortable in work meetings, and that’s okay!

    1. Sam, You are so right that sometimes we expect a lot, maybe too much sometimes, from ourselves. It’s understandable you are feeling apprehensive about going back to work and feeling nervous about those meetings. Who wouldn’t? Just because you’ve been dealing with cancer doesn’t mean you are now Super Woman! Go easy on yourself. In all areas. As with you, cancer hasn’t changed me fundamentally either, and I resist the notion that I am supposed to be somehow a better person now. Good luck back at work and with all those meetings! Thank you for chiming in on this one, my fellow introvert.

  34. Hi Nancy,

    Thank you for the honesty of this post–I am not a cancer patient; rather, I have a sibling that is dealing with Stage 3 breast cancer at the moment. I just wanted to give a differing opinion on this same topic (of people being who they are regardless of a cancer diagnosis).

    I have a very estranged relationship with my sibling for different reasons: for starters, she is an alcoholic and bi-polar and has burned bridges with many people. She has spoken words and took actions that are pretty unforgivable, alcoholic or not, and bi-polar or not–she hasn’t gotten to the point (and I’m not sure if she will or not) where she has taken any personal responsibility for her actions and it has placed a huge emotional burden on the people around her, especially in light of her cancer diagnosis. I decided to put my feelings of resentment and betrayal on the back burner for as long as I felt I could, and have tried my hardest to be helpful to and supportive of her, but I see the same behavioral patterns replaying again, and as a result, this huge rift that could have been mended (albeit slowly) is now active again because she has chosen to shut down all communication for reasons that I don’t understand. I feel pretty jerked around emotionally and it’s not healthy for me, so I have decided to step away and feel that I can do so with a clear conscience. I actually really wish cancer had been able to change some of her behaviors but unfortunately it hasn’t–she is who she is. This could actually be an opportunity for her to reach out more to the people she’s hurt (as was recommended by her cancer support team when she first found out about it), but she has chosen not to, and I think that’s really unfortunate for all of us. It’s a very difficult situation with no easy answers or solutions, and for me, it seems to come back to being self-protective…I need to practice self-compassion and self-care which is why I’ve decided to implement some pretty serious personal boundaries in regard to this situation.

    As I said, I just wanted to give my perspective of what it’s like being on the other end, and hoping for some improvement and not seeing it and what that’s like to absorb and process.

    Best of luck to you on your health journey,

    1. S, I am sorry you and your sister are estranged, but it sounds like you’ve done what you can to try to support her and mend the relationship. There’s only so much a person can do, as you know too well. You do need to practice self-care, for sure. I appreciate you sharing these personal matters. Thank you for offering your perspectives on this topic. My best to you and to your sister too.

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