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Does everything happen for a reason?

Do You Believe Everything Happens for a Reason?

Recently, I was inadvertently pulled into a Twitter conversation about an article in which the writer had proclaimed she believed all things happen for a reason. There was then further discussion about anger and how it is often considered somewhat of a “sorry” emotion, certainly not one most people would want attached to them or to be their legacy. No one wants the “angry person” label to be the only one they are remembered for.

But I do not believe anger, in and of itself, is a bad emotion. And I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I just don’t. 

I respect that writer’s viewpoints. All I want in return is to have alternate viewpoints respected as well, including mine. And yours.

Some of you might have read my recent post in which I shared how a book club reacted to my memoir. In a nutshell, there was a 50/50 split, with half liking it and half, not so much. Half the group felt I was too negative, too angry or too bitter. As I mentioned in the post, I am fine with that split. Not everyone sees her/his cancer experience as I see mine, nor should they.

However one comment in particular has continued to pester me and after that Twitter discussion I mentioned, I started thinking about it again, hence this post.

The comment was this one:

I felt profoundly sad that Nancy isolated herself from every opportunity to create a positive event in her life. This should have been a bonding time between she and daughter, she and her sisters and she and other patients. If you want to live, sometimes you have to fight for your life. I get a hospital news letter which occasionally runs a cancer patient’s story. Your story and theirs – very similar. Choose life no matter the struggle.

This is a very interesting comment and I appreciate the frankness and good spirit in which it was given. However, I also find it troubling that someone might suggest that my cancer experience should have been an opportunity to create a positive event in my life.

I do not understand this logic. But I am not surprised by it because this “finding the positive” narrative continues to be the prevalent one in Cancer Land.

But why?

I have no issue with someone else seeing her cancer experience as a means to a positive. If this sort of re-framing works for some, fine.

But why the unspoken (or often not unspoken), inference that my way is inferior?

In addition, the person who left that comment has no idea what my relationships are with dear daughter, my sisters (or my brother) and other patients. She has no clue what bonds do or do not exist between others and myself. In addition, there is the suggestion that if you want to live, you have to fight for your life. Hmm, don’t get me started on that one!

You can read my thoughts on that here or here.

The final observation about that particular comment is that she went on to say she reads a hospital newsletter with stories by cancer patients that are similar to mine.

Doesn’t this in itself say there are others that feel the same as me?

I continue to be baffled by this societal expectation for cancer patients and survivors to above all else, stay positive and search for the lesson in cancer and if you don’t find one, you’re doing something wrong.

Cancer is isolating enough without others making the patient feel even more so because she/he isn’t living up to the gold standard of how to do cancer. Finding little or nothing positive and/or no lesson in cancer does not mean you’ve “failed” some cancer test.

Before cancer, I had a darn good grasp of what was important to me in life. As I have said again and again, I did not need a wake-up call about that.

And the suggestion that my friends who are living with metastatic breast cancer should somehow believe there’s a reason for their situation, is beyond my comprehension.

Sometimes there just isn’t one.

In this case (and in many others), saying everything happens for a reason, sounds downright insulting, does it not?

I try hard not to impose on others my thoughts/feelings etc regarding my cancer experience.

I have had no epiphany. Again, I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I’m not a better person because of the big C, and hell yes, I’m angry sometimes. It’s cancer, for crying out loud, not some grand opportunity to reinvent myself.

I respect the right of others to feel they’ve changed for the better, or to proclaim they’ve had an epiphany, or whatever it might be.

But why can’t my way (and perhaps yours) be respected as well?

As far as I’m concerned, cancer sucks. Period. I will not give it credit for things it deserves no credit for. I will never sugarcoat my experience to conform to an unrealistic narrative I do not relate to.

If some feel this means I’m too angry, too negative, too bitter or all of the above, so be it.

I get to do cancer survivorship my way.

So do you.

Do you believe everything happens for a reason? (If you do, I’d really like to hear from you)

Do you feel you are a better person since your cancer diagnosis? 

Why do you think there is resistance to accepting other ways of “doing cancer” that don’t follow the more generally accepted societal narrative?

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It's okay to feel angry sometimes.
Sometimes it’s okay to feel your anger, maybe even necessary.


29 thoughts on “Do You Believe Everything Happens for a Reason?

    1. Leslie, Indeed we do. However, there often is still inference made that if you aren’t finding the lesson, feeling transformed (in a good way), or remaining positive above all else, you’re not quite doing cancer right. That more “acceptable narrative” continues to prevail.

  1. We seek reasons for why things happen to give us sense that the world isn’t cruel or uncaring. There’s also a need for approval as a sign of return to the world we “lost” in the midst of illness and being “happy” may seem like the polite way to be allowed back in. I think if we look at the changes in anyone who had gone through a powerful transformation we all might be frightened of what they encountered and would seek to neutralize it with any air-headed comment that came to mind.

    Sadly, people like to think their approval matters to others as a kind of affirmation of their own value so maybe you could stamp their hand or give them a bunny sticker and then tell them to scram?

    The other side of this is that anger can weaken us but we sometimes need to claim ourselves as having had an authentic experience that hurt us to the core, and it’s no one’s business to judge how we respond. I have a book called “How We Grieve: Relearning the World” by Thomas Attig. An extremely difficult book to read but very good at placing “impossible” or seemingly unreasonable sadness before the reader. Having gone somewhere we would never want to go, it’s our own solutions that matter.

    1. I found your book so much a part of my experience. Cancer did not make my life better and I am not having a positive experience going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I do realize there are many cancer patients with worse cancers than I have and I am trying to go through this experience with grace and optimism- HOWEVER- that doesn’t mean I can’t be sad or angry or whatever over the changes that cancer has brought to my life. And that doesn’t make me a bad person- it makes me human. I cannot see myself thinking that cancer made me a better person because I was pretty awesome before I had cancer!!!!

      1. Lin, Thank you for mentioning that my book felt relevant to your experience. We can try to go through cancer with grace and optimism, but this doesn’t mean we can’t also feel anger, fear, sadness or whatever emotion you care to name. As you said, we are human and this means we are all unique and complex. The idea that cancer automatically turns you into a better person makes no sense to me. The way I see it, this is one more way to re-frame it as some weird gift. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I don’t think my Cancer (nor my husbands before that), happened for a reason. Good or bad. It was a statistical anomaly that wrought real life devastation.

    I do however understand people’s desire to assign some positive meaning or outcomes to it. Otherwise that’s terrifying (and could happen to anyone, right?)

    I’ve found lots of people (with and without a Cancer diagnosis) however well-meaning, struggle to know what to say – For many the “positive platitudes” can simply fill the awkward silence.

    BUT, my cancer is certainly not a gift, nor a journey. It’s my life. It’s unfair, difficult, painful, exhausting, terrifying, boring, fun-thieving, money and soul-draining. Those aren’t the kind of things I’d gift wrap and give to ANYONE. So if I get angry & upset sometimes, I think that makes me a pretty rational, normal human.

    PS. One thing I have noticed – Cancer does not make you “a better person”. Even allowing for bad days, you can still spot an idiot in the chemo room treating junior staff like crap but sucking up to the Docs, or trying to jump the coffee queue and grab the best snacks. Once a jackass ..

    1. Sara, I am a bit weary of giving free passes because people mean well. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do, but not always. Platitudes can potentially be unhelpful and very hurtful, and it’s okay to call people out on them when you feel the need to. I love your P.S. paragraph. So true. Thank you for sharing your insights, and I’m sorry both you and your husband have dealt with cancer diagnoses.

  3. What is the reason I am now paralysed? What is the reason I have Lymphedema? What is the reason that I an left feeling by some people that I must have done cancer wrong??? I see no positives, I see no learning curve, I see no gifts or anything else but anger and disbelief that I am living with major side effects from my treatment .. angry, yes I am angry.. this does not just effect me but my whole family and friends…. if there is a reason than I would like someone to tell me what it is cause as far as I am concerned cancer stinks… it kills it maims and it ruins peoples lives…. there is NO REASON….

  4. 1. No, I don’t believe things happen for a reason (good or bad)
    2. No, I don’t feel like I’m a better person since my cancer diagnosis and ongoing treatment.
    3. I’m not sure why there is resistance. Perhaps people think they can control much of their life, sort of like “The Secret,” or through positive thinking. I do think positive thinking can help with certain life goals that one sets. But would anyone ever say, “She would get over her paralyzing spinal cord injury from that car accident if she’d just think positive and smile once in a while!”

    I do take exception to two of the things the commenter says:
    “If you want to live, sometimes you have to fight for your life.” Does she think having several surgeries, going for chemo treatments and CT scans for months/years, dealing with exhaustion and nausea is not fighting for your life? Really? Oh, but I guess you have to do all of that and look on the bright side while you’re doing it.

    “Choose life no matter the struggle.” Aren’t cancer patients choosing life when they show up for their many appointments and treatments?

    As I said in a previous comment, I did not find your book depressing. Really, how can you put a pretty face on cancer? Maybe I’m wrong, but I can only assume that people who say these things have not had a life-threatening illness.

    1. Denise, I’m glad you didn’t find my book depressing. Like I’ve said before, being honest and not glossing over negative stuff can actually be a positive in the long run. I’d much rather read the raw truth, but of course, not everyone wants to. And yes, how can you put a pretty face on cancer? I cannot. I refuse to pretty it up. I’m not sure about your last sentence. Actually, many breast cancer survivors (there were five in that book club) prefer the pinktified version of things, too. Some of us are just wired differently, I guess. Which is a good thing. But alternate ways of doing cancer survivorship need to be respected, too. Thank you for sharing.

  5. First of all bad things happen to good people without rhyme or reason and cancer did not make me a better person. More vocal and quick to anger maybe – but not better.
    When I read your post about the critique of your book, the comment you quoted was the one that jumped off the page at me. I felt so bad for you because not only was it an ignorant thing to say, it was actually quite hurtful in its implications. Do people really think that cancer patients don’t have feelings? Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how society views cancer patients and why there is the prevailing view that cancer is a gift that brings us all together in a nice pink fuzzy hug. Personally I think the media, especially films, have had a strong influence on how we are supposed to “do” cancer. It’s almost as though society is being trained to think of breast cancer survivors as noble martyrs facing death with quiet dignity and smiling faces. I saw an example just last month in fact, an episode of Saving Hope where one of the doctors sits in her chemo chair looking calm and composed…..and the next day she’s back at work in the E.R. smiling and jaunty. Those kinds of unrealistic portrayals are everywhere – even in hospital newsletters.

    1. Lennox, Well, I’m glad it wasn’t just me that felt a bit put off, okay, hurt by that particular comment. As CC mentioned in her comment, so many assumptions are made by people who don’t even know us or understand our particular situation. I think there are a lot of reasons why society continues to push the finding the positive in everything, even in cancer. And you’re right, this trains everyone to think of survivors as noble martyrs. That’s a good way to put it. Not feeling or acting in a certain way can make a cancer patient feel even more isolated. And yes, the hospital newsletters…I hear you. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  6. At this stage of my post cancer life, I just snort and roll my eyes and comments like the one you quote. It is just too amazing how often people want to tell other people how to live, feel, react, etc. I wonder if those giving such “advice” understand how truly presumptuous and pretentious they sound?
    This “cancer happens for a reason” thing is silly. One thing I realized with final clarity in a conversation with Bill Briggs (thanks again for introducing) is that some people are VERY uncomfortable with the randomness of cancer so they must assign meaning. I made my peace with the notion that cells divide all the time and sometimes that division goes awry. It is biology, not mythology. But if others need to have those beliefs–hey whatever gets you thru the night I guess…

    1. CC, Love your snorting and rolling eyes response. I wouldn’t call what someone else believes silly, but like you, I believe in the biology of it all, too. Glad you had a good chat with Bill Briggs a while back. And yes, people do like to assign meaning to everything, but sometimes it seems like there just isn’t any. And if I were a metster and someone told me my diagnosis happened for some grand reason, I’m not sure what I’d say in response. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be something pleasant. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I am a woman of faith, but I don’t believe God micromanages our lives nor is there a reason for everything that happens. It’s a trite phrase people say when they don’t know what else to do. Let’s get back with them when… I hope not… they’re diagnosed.

  8. I absolutely do not believe that everything happens for a reason. What a platitudinous cop-out for not facing up to the reality that sometimes life just sucks and bad things really do happen to good people for no reason. Thanks for writing this Nancy x

  9. Cancer does happen for a reason: WE ARE BEING POISONED. We are eating, drinking and breathing a cocktail of toxic chemicals. AND WE SHOULD BE VERY ANGRY ABOUT IT;

  10. No I don’t believe things happen for a reason. The world is made of so many different people who react differently to a situation. None are right or wrong. Your reasons and reactions are your own.
    My friends young son died of leukemia aged 13. We were wondering and spoke often of why him etc. Then his brother came home from medical school and said the type of leukemia Dan had was part of him from birth and he was always going to get it. No divine intervention, just a fault of nature.
    Be as angry as you want. And if I were you I’d be a lot more angry about that comment!

    1. Tric, I am sorry about your friend’s young son’s death. When and if someone says this sort of thing to someone who’s lost a child, it’s potentially even more hurtful. As to your final words, I am not angry about that comment. After all, I asked for honest reaction to my memoir because that’s what I wanted. I always appreciate someone’s candor, even if her/his views are different from my own. Be careful what you ask for, right? Thank you for sharing.

  11. I have been away from cancer conversations for the past while because it’s cruelty hit my immediate family in te worst possible way. My cousin who I admired and loved since we were kids died of pancreatic cancer. How could she be here and now a pile of ashes. Was there a reason I don’t believe so Do I blame someone do I blame God? I am so tired of people trying to “make sense” of someone else’s disease. how can you make sense that I have survivors guilt, why am I still here after 8 years and she was gone within 9 months..? There is an almost unwritten unfairness if that makes sense…… Something very bad happened to her something as bad happened to me too only differently. Cancer speak was overwhelming for me these last few weeks, my heart hurts.. If someone ever tells me cancer happens for a reason I’m honestly not sure how I will react .. Allixx

    1. Alli, I am sorry about your cousin. I think it’s natural to experience those feelings of survivor’s guilt when someone close to you dies. Cancer is very unfair, that’s for sure. It’s certainly understandable you have felt overwhelmed of late and have stayed away from cancer conversations. I’m glad you felt like sharing here. Thank you. Again, I’m very sorry.

  12. Hi Nancy,

    I consider myself a spiritual person, although not affiliated with organized religion. And I have a so-so relationship with God, sometimes unfairly blaming Him for bad things that have happened to me. However, despite my faith, I can honestly say that cancer does not happen for a reason other than some rogue cells. God didn’t cause my cancer so I could be a better person. I didn’t get cancer because I needed it in my life. However, for me, and I can only talk about my own experience, it was a wake-up call because I lived in a very unhealthy state with a horrific job and equally horrific marriage. Cancer was the catalyst for many life changes.

    That being said, I am not grateful to have had cancer. In fact, cancer sucks. A lot. I bristle when people say that when someone is afflicted with cancer that things happen for a reason. In life, things happen, shit happens for no reason at all. That’s life….

    1. Beth, I hate that phrase, everything happens for a reason. I know many believe it to be true, but not me. I bet you likely would’ve made some of those life changes if cancer hadn’t butted into to your life. I can see how cancer can be a catalyst, but something to be grateful for, never. That’s not something I’ll be saying any time soon, or later. Thank you for reading and commenting, Beth.

  13. Even before I got cancer (diagnosed last year with thymoma) I did not believe that everything happens for a reason. However it was the entirely random nature of my cancer that made it hard to accept at first. I’ve been a ‘live a healthy life’ type person for many years. All my healthy living seemed in vain. All that broccoli was for nothing!! Ha ha. Now I ‘blame’ my cancer on a random gamma ray from alpha centauri and have moved on. My previous good health has been of value to me as I have retained some fitness and energy through my horrible chemo and have managed to enjoy some aspects of life still. The future is unknown but I look forward to smaller things like growing back some hair and eyelashes now my chemo is finished with. I’ve done the best I can and I hope it is enough but if it’s not then there is no reason behind it – just random chance.

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