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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

 

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Shelley

Thursday 14th of May 2020

This made my day, thanks! Specifically " not an enlightenment program" .Wouldn't that be special? Lol

Nancy

Friday 15th of May 2020

Shelley, Glad I could make your day! :)

S.

Tuesday 26th of February 2019

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, S.

Nancy

Tuesday 26th of February 2019

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.

Sam

Friday 25th of January 2019

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!

Nancy

Friday 25th of January 2019

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.

Annie

Wednesday 7th of June 2017

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.

Nancy

Thursday 8th of June 2017

Annie, Thank you for sharing. Appreciate hearing your insights, too.

Mimi M

Saturday 2nd of May 2015

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.

Nancy

Monday 4th of May 2015

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.