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Please Stop Calling Cancer a Gift!

As you probably know by now, some topics in Cancerland are hot button topics for me. Hearing cancer referred to as a gift (or a blessing) is one of them. I have written about this before here and here. As time goes by, I find myself even more entrenched in my convictions on this one; in fact, I think this just might be my number one cancer language pet peeve. So if you don’t want to read yet another rant of mine on this subject; well, I understand. 

Once in a while someone will say to me something like, just let it go. Why does it matter? Don’t pick on someone else for calling her cancer a gift.

Let’s be clear, I am not picking on anyone else. I respect everyone’s views and rights to ‘do’ cancer in their own way. If someone wishes to call her cancer a gift, that is most definitely her prerogative, but this is my blog and I am free to express my views here as frankly as I choose to. (And as always,  you are very welcome to agree or disagree any time).

So, let’s stop calling cancer a gift. Calling cancer a gift feels like a slap in the face to those of us who feel differently, but more importantly it feels like a direct insult, yes insult, to those who die from metastatic disease.

How could cancer be a gift for anyone if some people die from it?

Most people who call cancer a gift presumably mean their cancer was a wake-up call. They made changes like improving their diet and exercise habits, stopped sweating the small stuff, changed career paths or partners, or whatever it might be. They maintain that these things would not have happened had it not been for cancer.

Cancer can be a catalyst. I will admit to that. This still does make it a gift. There likely would have been different catalysts coming along instigating change because that’s what life is all about, change and one thing leading to another.

Everyone’s life is an ongoing ‘domino effect’ of sorts.

As for me, I did not need a cancer wake-up call. I was doing just fine in my pre-breast cancer life, thank you very much. I was working on improving my life style habits before cancer and I am still working on them now. I didn’t need cancer to teach me to appreciate my family or life in general. I didn’t need it to teach me to stop and smell the roses either.

And as much as I love the wonderful people I’ve met since my cancer diagnosis, if I could trade such friendships for a life with no cancer in it, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Is that a horrible thing to say? Maybe. Maybe not.

Last month during all the gratitude talk, I took notice of one graphic in particular that was shared probably thousands of times on Facebook. It said, I am not thankful for cancer, but I am thankful for what cancer has taught me.

This doesn’t work for me either. (If it does for you, again, that’s fine).

I am most definitely not thankful for cancer and I am not particularly thankful for what it has taught me either.

Much of what cancer has taught me is stuff I would much rather not have known about. Ever.

Sure I have learned some ‘good’ things about myself and others since my diagnosis. We learn from good experiences and bad experiences too. But I am not grateful I had to learn them.

No matter how we like to twist, shape and re-shape our cancer experience, it’s still cancer and it still sucks. Sometimes things are just bad and sure we cope, we deal, we manage, we maybe even grow as a person; but this still does not mean the bad experience itself was a gift.

Cancer has brought heartache, upheaval, fear, worry, emotional and physical pain, and yes, death into my family and into too many of my friends’ families as well.

So how could cancer ever possibly be a gift?

Cancer did not make be brave, or tough, or strong. I just more or less did what I was instructed to do. That actually sounds more ‘weak-like’ than strong or brave when you think about it.

Cancer is a horrible and too often deadly disease.

How could such a thing be a gift?

Cancer steals in oh so many ways.

I have given up a load of my female body parts and been forced to adapt to an unplanned-for body which sometimes doesn’t even feel like mine anymore, and I am still dealing daily with lingering side effects from cancer treatment. And then there are the emotional scars…

How could such a thing be a gift?

I wonder if most people who call cancer a gift are not brca+ or dealing with hereditary cancer issues…  But wait, no, remember Melissa Etheridge’s comments?

I don’t like having to worry about my kids (or anyone’s kids), or my nieces and nephews carrying this blankety-blank gene mutation. Cancer’s shadow hovers in families like mine. The threat is part of our past and part of our futures.

How could such a thing be a gift?

Maybe the biggest reason of all that calling cancer a gift grates on my nerves so much is because not that many years ago on Christmas Eve my family was sitting down to open actual gifts and I got the call which basically let me know my mother was dying. Terribly ironic, right?

How could cancer ever be a gift?

If I sound grouchy, angry or even bitter about this topic, well, so be it. Cancer sometimes makes me crotchety.

Life is a gift. People are gifts. You are a gift. Cancer is not.

Let’s stop calling it one.

Rant over.

How do you feel about cancer being called a gift or a blessing?

What’s your biggest cancer language pet peeve?

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58 thoughts on “Please Stop Calling Cancer a Gift!

      1. “An Awakening”

        When I was diagnosed with Breast cancer a few years back, I reacted like most who receive a cancer diagnose; first thing came to mind was a “death sentence”. However, I found out later that it was truly “an awakening” for me, “not a gift. The gift is if you survive it, where you can began to share your experiences of all that you endured with others. By no means of having cancer “is a gift”.

        I did began questioning, why would you do this to me? What had I done in life so bad to have this placed upon me? But instead of bemoaning my fate, I decided to look for the positive side of it. There has to be a reason for it all. I also realized that I was about to face a new beginning, new hope, do and see more with a whole new prospective on life. When I think of the “gift of life” that was given to me, I know that I will develop and gain strength from all my experiences. After going through all that I did during my breast cancer period, I was left with a few complications I now have to live with; one being daily pain. For a while, I wasn’t happy with the way I looked around my breast area, nor the pain I had to endure each day, but I decided to snap out of it. Even after being diagnosed with another cancer (colon) a few years later. Which totally took me by surprise. But even with the pain I had to endure through each diagnose, and all the struggles I’ve dealt with all my life, I still feel truly blessed. I think about the individuals that are no longer among us. I also realized that there will always be someone worse off than I am. I reminded myself, that I “still have my life”, so who am I to complain.

        One day during one of my surgeries, I experienced something of a miracle, as if I went to the other side, so I felt the compulsion to write it down. I turn that experience into a poem and I called it “Peace”. Writing had become therapy for me. I took that poem, along with many others I had composed during my breast cancer period and placed them into book form. I was blessed enough to have that book published, called “True Simple Poems of Life, Faith and Survival”. I later had another inspirational children’s book published, with a third one on the way. I’m hoping that anyone who has the opportunity to read my first book of poems, get out of them, what I placed in all of them. My poems are from the heart, as real as any could ever be. With the words and phrases of each poem of statement, I wish to make a positive impact on someone who’s ill or otherwise, where they could develop the strength to embrace life in a whole new way. I never anticipated becoming a writer, I just became one. I truly believe when you survive a horrific tragedy or a horrible disease as cancer, it’s for a reason, “you have a purpose” and I want to live to find find out exactly what that is for me.

        That’s what I’m all about now, inspiration. I would have never become a writer, producing inspirational poems and stories, if I had not gone through all that I did. I’m a true example that you can survive cancer not once, but twice, providing you catch it in time, have faith and allow that faith to direct your path.

        Karen Rice
        x2 Cancer Survivor/Author
        Houston, Texas
        http://www.karensfaithandsurvivor77.shutterfly.com

  1. If it is a gift, I say return to sender. BRCA1 destroyed my small family and brought me breast cancer 4 times. At 29 with the first cancer, I learned things I could have waited decades to know. Whatever lessons were to be learned, surely there was another way to learn them. I agree whole heartedly with everything you said here. Thank you for writing about it so eloquently.

    1. Sharon, Yes, return to sender, that would be nice. Cancer’s impact is devastating, at least it has been in my family. I will never ever call it a gift. Thank you for reading and for sharing.

  2. Couldn’t agree more.
    I live in earthquake country and have never heard people here say that having lived through an earthquake is a gift. Or that having one’s house broken into or burned down is a gift. Why, then do so many call their cancer a gift? I suspect that for them, maybe, BC (before cancer) they might have been living an unexamined life or they might have been downright miserable, and now they’re turning things around and they believe cancer was the catalyst. That’s still illogical: it doesn’t mean the cancer was a gift. It means they recognized, maybe before it’s too late, that life is a gift.
    My qualm with “cancer is a gift” is when others expect me to see it that way. I don’t.

    Thanks for this post, Nancy.

    1. Sara, When you think about it, you don’t really hear any other illness or calamity referred to as a gift, or at least you don’t hear it called that nearly as often as you do regarding cancer. Sometimes we shouldn’t try to make something bad into something good. Cancer is one of those things, for me anyway. Thank you for reading and sharing your insights.

  3. As a Curmudgeon, I agree totally of course. And yes, all have the right to do cancer how they please, and if others call it a gift, so be it. For me the problem is that there is a social expectation to view it as a gift–and having people like rock stars call it such only reinforce this. Just like the warrior/brave language, I resent it when I am called these things I do not call myself, by people who do not know me, were not sitting with me in the darkest days of treatment when I clearly exhibited the opposite of bravery. When anyone tells me I should view cancer as a gift, again–it is vaguely insulting: they have no idea if I was stopping and smelling the roses prior to cancer! So no, I do not wish to pick on those who call it a gift, but I expect the same courtesy for not viewing it as one (doubt I’ll get it).
    Funnily enough, the more time that passes since I finished treatment, the less these words irk me in the same way. I often thought, as people repeated the same “brave” and “you look good” phrases at me, that people said stuff because they did not know what else to say.

    1. CC, I agree that many times people say things because they don’t know what else to say. We all do this and not just regarding illness topics. Still, this doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try to do better. But this gift one really grates on my nerves and my feelings on it have actually intensified. Maybe because I realize the cancer fallout I am dealing with is surely no gift and because I know so many wonderful women who have died from mbc. I keep coming back to the question – if so many others die from cancer, how could it be a gift for me or for anyone? Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. If cancer is a gift, can I please trade it for the opportunity to see my two still single children marry and have children of their own? Can I please trade it for a chance to see my grandbaby and his soon to be born little sister grow up? How about trading it for a life free of constant treatments and their side effects?
    It seems my unwanted “gift” this Christmas is recurrence and starting new treatment. I really would have preferred a fruitcake instead. Even a petrified re-gifted one would have been better.

  5. Ah, yes, cancer language. Frankly, I hate it all. People have admired me because I’ve had cancer, they think I’m strong, heroic, stoically beat cancer, tough, and a gazillion other adjectives. Truth be told, cancer kicked me in the gut and, like you and many patients, I chose to improve my odds of living. I was scared and didn’t feel I was strong either.

    When I had undergone my bilateral prophylactic mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction, the hell I endured was no gift. Yet, when I was recovering from this serious surgery, people asked me if I thought breast cancer was a gift. At the time, I had so many emotions and was still sorting out the blitzkrieg against me that I didn’t have an answer, but now I do:

    Cancer is no gift. It has taken a heavy toll on those I care about, and it has taken a heavy toll on me (kind of the obvious). I luckily do not have the BRCA 1 or 2 mutation, but I have PTSD that really interferes with the quality of my life. I’m a daily reminder to myself that cancer is no gift.

    Great post, Nancy!

    1. Beth, There are so many reasons cancer is not a gift… And yes, much of the cancer language is problematic. I have another post brewing about this. I’m sorry about the heavy toll cancer has taken on you, and on all those affected by it. It’s not a gift at all for most. Thanks for sharing some thoughts on this, Beth.

  6. Oh boy, how much do I agree with your rant. It’s 100 percent spot on.

    Cancer is not a gift. Cancer is a thief. It took my mother’s life when she was only 40 years old. It took away three children’s mother. This disease has taken so much from me, my body and my mental well being. Although I’m not BRCA+, this disease was hereditary for me. I’ve been scared of it ever since I was 21 years old and told I had to start getting mammograms at 25. Years before my diagnosis, I knew I was going to have this disease. It wasn’t a gift – it was the Boogie Man, who stalked me for most of my 20s.

    1. Lara, I hate that cancer has taken so much from you and I’m very sorry. It’s definitely no gift at all. Thank you for reading and stating what needs to be heard.

  7. Two different oncologists have told me “If you have to have a cancer, this (carcinoid cancer) is the best one to have.”! How can there be a best one?
    You are right. It is not a gift and not the best to have.
    Namaste,
    Cy

    1. Cy, Wow, it’s too bad you had to hear that from two oncologists no less. That was pretty insensitive. It’s no gift and there’s no easy or better cancer either. Hate it all. Thank you for chiming in on this.

  8. Nancy, I recently gave a lecture on lymphedema for a group of oncology massage therapists, and the women who presented before me, was a nurse who presented on “heart math” and all about positive thinking.
    So, I got up and said “Cancer is not a gift, and the social narrative that demands that this particular illness, and expressly breast cancer–not so much for prostate cancer, leukemia or lung cancer–may make others feel better, but I find it’s not helpful for me.” And the whole room, who were previously told to consciously reject their “negative thoughts and feelings” woke up and heard me.
    No, it is not a gift, and I could have lived my life perfectly well without damacles sword of late recurrences, the daily reminder in my lymphedema, the “gift” of tamoxifen induced endometrial cancer and the lingering issues from my surgeries and treatments.
    And I don’t have a “bad attitude” because I reject the social narrative. I don’t think that through suffering comes greatness, sometimes it’s just suffering.
    Thanks Nancy.

    1. Kira, Good for you for telling it like it is for you. And thank you too. You’re so right; rejecting the social narrative does not mean you or I have a bad attitude. There is so much pressure to stay positive no matter what, which can in fact, be harmful for some. Thank you for sharing about your lecture experience.

  9. if cancer is a gift, let’s write the word ‘cancer’ on a slip of paper, wrap it up in a box and give it as a gift to people. I wonder if it would be well received or thought of as a horribly rude insult?

  10. I’m with you Nancy. Cancer’s not a gift. If cancer was a gift, shouldn’t we all be hoping to get it? For how much it brigs into our lives once we’re past the hard parts? Shouldn’t we want all our friends and family to get it too? After all, it provides such life changing lessons, such clarity, such gratefulness! NOT!

    I don’t wish this on anyone and every time I hear about someone else getting it, particularly younger people, I feel sad and angry.

    When I read stories about something in our environment that companies used for years even though they knew it was dangerous, something that ended up shortening the lives of hundreds, I get angry!

    I’m going off in a tangent now but I can’t help it.

    I hate all the cancer language: being brave, being positive, fighting the battle – it all drives me crazy!

    1. Lauren, Glad you are with me on this one. I actually have another post coming up on cancer language that I’m trying to decide if I should publish or not. Your comment gives me more confidence to go ahead and do it, so thank you. Thank you for adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  11. Nope. Not a gift. My husband and I learned to not sweat the small stuff a whole lot better, but I wish we could have figured that one out without cancer. 🙂

  12. Thanks for your post Nancy and the responses it has generated. I will call cancer a catalyst, but not a gift.
    Like any other life experience we have, chosen or imposed, we see it from the framework of our life up to that point. A cancer diagnosis throws a real curve ball and each patient experiences that in her/his own way.I will say that I learned things through my cancer treatment and surgeries, and all the emotions that came with those months, that I probably wouldn’t have learned any other way. One of the ways cancer is a catalyst for me is that it reminds me to appreciate each day, to be grateful to still be here able-bodied and alive. Maybe when people call it a gift, they refer more to those around the patient…those who care about them, who are happy to have them still here, who learned some of the lessons indirectly and not the painful and frightening direct way you, me, and so many others have had to learn. Maybe they see cancer as a gift in some way. Good discussion as always!

    1. Lisa, I agree that cancer can be a catalyst, but I cannot fathom the gift concept. At all. Thank you for adding to this discussion. Once again, your patience and kindness shines through in your words.

  13. I’m 43. I have a 6 year old daugther. I have MBC.

    When someone tells me this is a gift, my answer is: “Do you want some? I’d be happy to share it with you, ’cause I sure as hell didn’t need this.” That is usually the end of the discussion.

    My take…

    1. Annette, Good for you for having a witty comeback ready to fire back. And yes, I bet your response does end such discussions quickly. I hope you are doing alright. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment too.

  14. I agree that the ‘gift’ language needs to go. It should be reworded into catalyst, which is more accurate. By the definition of the word, it is neutral, neither a good thing or a bad thing. It takes on good or bad aspects in the context in which it is presented. Gift on the other hand as an inherit concept of ‘good’. Cancer is certainly not good. It’s bad, but it can be a catalyst for things which turn out to be good. Most bad things are a catalyst in some way or shape or form. That doesn’t make them a gift.

    It’s like the Tower card in Tarot. It’s a card of a sudden, chaotic upheaval. Even if it indicates good things will happen as a result, it’s still not a card you’re going to want to see come up in a reading. Even if cancer has led someone on a path where they find gifts and blessings, it does not make the cancer a gift or a blessing in itself. It’s horrible, chaotic, a crack of lightning breaking down the core of our daily life.

    I find good things in my life, and I would not find them if I were on a different path. But if I were on a different path, I would be finding OTHER good things. It’s not about the cancer, it’s not because of the cancer, it’s just the outlook at being able to see your surroundings from the path you’re on and finding beauty in life even if life sucks. The beauty is the gift, not the cancer. People who say cancer is a gift don’t seem to have the literary grasp needed to explain themselves, that it’s not cancer but the things we find despite the cancer.

    Plus, most people who say that are early stage “For the Cure”-blinded “cancer free” pink warriors. They’re still living in a world of delusions where breast cancer has a cure and mammograms are a good way to not get breast cancer.

  15. Interesting note by Susanne, above. Yes, I would agree that cancer has been a catalyst for me, and I’ll say again that I WISH I had learned the lesson of making the most of every day without having it, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until I had breast cancer that I started actively checking things off a bucket list, taking those trips (Paris, Grand Canyon, Santa Fe) that I’ve always dreamed of. But, no, not a gift. More of a wake up that I wish I could have learned sooner and without the experience of bc.

    1. Claudia, I don’t have a bucket list. I didn’t need a wake-up call like cancer to make me appreciate life and my family. Do I sweat the small stuff less now? Yes. But calling cancer a gift just has not ever and will not ever work for me. I keep coming back to the question: If so many die from cancer and still more suffer greatly due to it, how could it possibly be a gift for anyone? The whole concept is out of whack for me. Thank you for reading and sharing your insights.

  16. in the same category as “everything happens for a reason” and “god doesn’t give you more than you can handle” and “it all works out in the end.”

    um, no no no and no

  17. Great post Nancy and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Cancer is anything but a gift. You said what so many of us feel and cannot put into words as eloquently as you did here (at least I can’t!). My biggest cancer pet peeve is when people say they are “cancer free”. I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2006 and went through the grueling surgeries and chemo treatments and was happy with my NED diagnosis in 2007. I was diagnosed last year with over 25 bone Mets but with tumors in other areas of my body as well. I never once in those years that I was in remission said I was “cancer free”. I knew that it could come rearing it’s ugly head any time. No matter how much a doctor thinks “they’ve got it all”, there is absolutely no guarantee as I have seen too many times with losing my mother and several family members to breast cancer metastasis & now me.

    1. Tracy, I’m sorry you were diagnosed with mets and I’m sorry about your mother and other family members. As I said in my post, calling cancer a gift is like an insult to those loved ones who have died from mbc. Cancer was not, is not and never will be a gift as far as I’m concerned. And yes, the ‘cancer free’ phrase is pretty misleading as you know all too well. Many things are said attempting to make others feel better and attempting to sugar coat reality. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Well, now I know what NOT to get you for the holidays!

    I couldn’t agree with you more Nancy! It’s not a gift and I would erase the experience if given the chance in a heartbeat.

  19. Thank you for your rant about this gift nonsense! I am mad as hell I have breast cancer and the only da*n think I have learned is that like isn’t fair and sometime outright sucks big time.

  20. NO WAY! I would never call any cancer a gift. First, this insinuates that I had to be taught some kind of lesson. So cancer had to happen in order to make myself a better person. I don’t feel my cancer was a gift and I certainly don’t feel like it was my teacher. Now, it has made me more aware of some things, like who my true friends are, etc.

    My biggest cancer language pet peeve? There are so many! Anything that suggests I got cancer as a punishment. I believe viewing cancer as a “gift” sort of suggests this. I can’t stand it!!

    Thank you for writing about this, Nancy. It’s OK to express your level of frustration and anger. This topic inspires the same emotions in me.

  21. My biggest cancer language pet peeve… “You are an inspiration”
    I didn’t ask to be an inspiration. I was just trying to survive!
    I know the people meant it as a compliment, but I hated hearing it over and over.

  22. Why does it have to be a dichotomy? Cancer is awful but it can also be awesome. I don’t think anything in life is so simple that we can reduce it to a binary like that.

  23. Cancer, a gift? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! That’s a laugh!
    My other pet peeve? When I tell folks I have colon cancer, some have immediately replied, “Oh, my Mom (Dad, brother, sister, friend, neighbor, co-worker DIED of that). Nice. Hello? Is there a working brain in that head??? Thank you, Nancy, for letting me rant. I’m right there with you!

  24. Your writing is a welcome relief to me, as always, knowing that these thoughts rattling around my brain are shared by others. I’m not insane! And one word that definitely would never come to mind regarding cancer is “awesome!” And sorry that does include all the “no shows” in my life since getting and revealing this “lovely” diagnosis. Well, gotta go soak my left hand, that now “creaks” despite my not being old, thanks to this GIFT!!!
    Best, A

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