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Calling Cancer a Gift Or an Opportunity for Enlightenment Is Insulting!

Calling cancer a gift or an opportunity for enlightenment is insulting!

Cancer is not a gift, nor is it an enlightenment program from which you emerge as a new and improved version of your former self. At least I do not view it as such and the latter did not happen for me.

As you likely know by now, the concept of referring to cancer as a gift or an opportunity for enlightenment grates on my nerves. Heck, all anyone has to do is read the title of my memoir or the synopsis on its back cover. In fact, I find the notion that cancer is a gift insulting.

What about you?

Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn't Make Me a Better Person

I am beyond weary of the societal expectation that suggests we should be better people post-cancer diagnosis, and I’ve been rebelling and writing about this for years. Herehere and here.

Of course, I hope I am a better person post-diagnosis but not because of cancer. Big difference.

I had no plans to write about this topic again. Even I’m kinda sick of it. I thought, surely by now, the idea of calling cancer a gift had been put to rest.

Talk about a stale narrative, right?

No one actually goes around suggesting someone else should consider her cancer a gift do they?

Yep. It seems so.

Recently, I received an email from a reader who wanted advice on how to handle this very thing. She was taking some sort of Christian women’s class and at the end of one of the sessions, the teacher said, cancer is a gift from God. Yep. You read that right. A gift. From God no less.

Yikes!

In no way do I wish to imply that all Christians think this way because clearly, they do not.

But back to the reader…

Her email went on to say, I really don’t know what this person (the instructor) is talking about. What should I do?

The instructor also shared a link to a book about the whole cancer is a gift notion. I chose not to include the book’s actual title because to me, it borders on offensive, and I don’t wish to generate any interest in or sales for such a book.

Is that petty?

Maybe so. Call me petty then.

Anyway, clearly, this expectation is still out there. This particular reader was at a loss regarding what to say or do about this dilemma. Hence this post.

I very much want to know what you, Dear Readers, would suggest.

When someone spews the cancer is a gift nonsense to me, I’ve learned how to handle that, but admittedly, it took a while for me to get up the gumption (or whatever the heck it takes) to push back in this type of situation.

When I received that email, I felt protective regarding that dear reader – like someone was “picking on” her, and I needed to help her out.

Does that sound weird?

If someone does feel her cancer was/is a gift, that’s fine. My problem is with the societal expectation that seems to push nudge others in Cancer Land into accepting that line of thinking too.

I will not be nudged.

Cancer did not teach me what was important. I already knew. Cancer did not make me stronger, wiser, braver, kinder, better or whatever. Cancer did not make me a better person. It just did not.

Megan Devine, author of, It’s OK that You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand, addresses this topic of “becoming better” in her book too. This book (I am happy to mention hers) is about grief, but there are many instances in it where one can easily interchange the word grief with the word cancer.

For example, and as I wrote about in an earlier post, she talks about the unspoken part in statements like, this (loss) will make you a better person or now you know what’s important, that often get floated around. (Yeah people say that crap about grief too):

The unspoken second half of the sentence in this case says you needed this somehow. It says you weren’t aware of what was important in life before this happened. It says that you weren’t kind, compassionate, or aware enough…That you needed this experience in order to develop or grow, that you needed this lesson in order to step into your “true path” in life…Statements like this say you were not good enough before. You somehow needed this.

When you think about it, that unspoken part is darn cruel.

To be clear, people saying such things don’t intend to cause hurt, it’s that those hearing such platitudes often interpret them as hurtful.

So, what should that dear reader do?

I suggested she read my posts on this subject. I also suggested that if she felt truly uncomfortable by such statements and such a book, she should tell her instructor so. Discussion is good, as are varying opinions. Sometimes speaking up is easier said than done though, right? I mean, maybe she had to pass that class or get a certain grade, so there’s that.

But ordinarily, a person should not be afraid to speak up, which reminds me of these very wise words from Audre Lorde:

When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.

Don’t you just love that?

Along with an expectation that you should be transformed (for the better) after a cancer diagnosis, or any difficult life-changing experience, is the accompanying followup question if you should resist.

Why aren’t you “better”?

Hmm. Feels like another version of the blame game.

This does not mean cancer doesn’t change things or you. Hell, it changes just about everything. Some changes are perhaps good. Many are not.

In her book, Devine says the following about all this forced betterment malarkey:

Things happen, and we absorb and adapt. We respond to what we experience, and that is neither good nor bad. It simply is. The path forward is integration, not betterment…You don’t have to grow from it, and you don’t have to put it behind you. Both responses are too narrow and shaming to be of use. Life-changing events do not just slip quietly away…They change us. They are part of our foundation as we move forward…What you build might be growth…But that is due to your choices, your own alignment with who you are and who you want to be. Not because grief (or cancer – my addition) is your one-way ticket to becoming a better person.

Amen to that.

You don’t have to grow from it or put it behind you. That’s so freeing, don’t you think?

I’ve been harping on moving forward vs moving on for ages. After all, cancer is not a before and after event as far as being over and then done with; it’s part of the continuum that is your life.

Giving cancer credit for making any positive changes you do manage to make in your life after a diagnosis is ridiculous. YOU are the change maker. Granted, cancer might be a catalyst of sort, but you are one behind the wheel of your life. You get all the credit. Not cancer.

I’ll wrap this ramble up with a quote from another book – yep, mine:

Calling cancer a gift or thinking of it as an opportunity for personal enlightenment might make a nice feature story for a magazine or newspaper article or sell more books. But it’s just not reality, at least it’s not mine. Plus, it’s downright insulting to those with a stage IV diagnosis. Maybe it’s all semantics, but words matter. A lot…People are gifts. Life is a gift. Cancer is not. This doesn’t mean I am bitter, negative or ungrateful (I’ve been called all three). Mostly, it means I’m a person who lives in reality. If looking at their cancer as a gift works for some, more power to them. But as for me, this kind of thinking is unfathomable. Cancer is not, was not and never will be a gift for me and my family. Despite the illusion often created by pink ribbon culture, breast cancer is still a horrible, too often deadly disease, and nothing about it is pretty, pink or gift-like. Period.

Cancer is not a gift, an enlightenment program, wake up call, path to figure out life’s true meaning or any other BS way of framing it. Hearing it referred to as such is insulting, to me anyway.

What about you?

If applicable, do you feel you are a better person because of cancer?

What advice would you give that dear reader or anyone else in a similar situation?

If applicable, do you consider your cancer a gift or an opportunity for enlightenment?

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You might also wish to read my book, Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person:  A memoir about cancer as I know it. If you have read it, please consider writing a review on Amazon. Thank you!

Calling #cancer a gift or an opportunity for enlightenment is insulting! #breastcancer #cancersucks

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Ilene

Monday 25th of May 2020

Many many times after hearing the phrase, well we’re all going to die sometime, I retorted with the usual - well you don’t know from what and how painful your existence will be until that day comes and I hope you never do. I’d not wish my “growth experience” on my worst enemy. I actually have a mortal enemy and guess what? I don’t forgive her either. So I don’t wish it on her but I still hate her guts. She did something so reprehensible that it led to the stress in my life that probably led to the speeding up of my cortisol production that also led five years ago to my stage four diagnosis. I hate cancer more than I hate her. Cancer sucks. My life changed for the worse not the better. I am broke, broken and tired. Focusing on my now and my breath and today and this moment and not making plans - is that better? No. It’s not better. I am as always though my life growing and expanding as human being,, and more secure in the person oI am. I am still me - just me with cancer and I know a lot more about cancer. There’s simply a coincidence that I strive to be a better person as wisdom springs from experience, as knowledge blooms from curiosity or in some cases necessity, and as love deepens and strengthen as the choices I’ve made rely on the wisdom and knowledge I’ve gained. I’ve earned a living and the worst thing for me is a lack of independence. When you support yourself since the age of 14, you become fierce in the independent nature of your life. But there’s a secondary level of strength that has come to serve me well - tenacity. After tenacity humor. If not for both I’d be a candle blown out by the wind, my soul gone back to the place from whence it came, in essence without those things supporting my psychological health I’d be a dead parrot. Like the Monty Python sketch https://youtu.be/vnciwwsvNcc and I wish to place a complaint. No religion makes room for the lepers, the cancer addled, the terminally ill. We are ignored and isolated, put in a box and left there to die. If it weren’t for my online support network, including you who i love dearly, I’d be editing out the salty words and trying like hell to find a nice way to say - cancer is a narcissistic fucking asshole that takes one by their own vascular system and sucks the light out of our eyes. Yeah, there’s growth. But that’s called a tumor.

Nancy

Thursday 28th of May 2020

Ilene, I'm glad you so candidly shared your thoughts on this topic. Your last sentence is my favorite part. That would make a perfect comeback retort when needed. xx

Colleen

Wednesday 16th of October 2019

Just came accross this post, and I have felt the shock and sting of hearing someone in my life respond with an enthusiastic, "What a blessing!" when I shared the news of my cancer diagnosis. I still have a hard time fathoming it, but it is clear from your post and the comments that this type of statement is not as unusual as I'd hope it was.

I am writing to share with you my response, in the hopes that it may help others as a tactic to respond to such statements. I've actually used this as a response to many different statements ("check out this diet," "read this book" "I hear picking out an implant is like selecting tiles for your kitchen"-- yes, heard that one too, of course, from someone who has never been through this). I'll pause to share that I have re-evaluted some of these "friendships," and generally avoid the blessing person now, lol. Who says that????!!!!

The response that has worked well for me is simply, "I'm not there yet." or "I'm not there." In some instances, it acts like a reset button and the conversation goes elsewhere. In others, the person feels the need to once again explain what they are suggesting. In which event, I respond again, "I am not there." It is a way to demonstrate your lack of agreement without calling someone out for saying something completely ridiculous or offensive.

Wishing actual blessings for you all!

Nancy

Saturday 19th of October 2019

Colleen, Thank you for sharing what works for you. And yeah, the stuff people sometimes say...

Liz

Tuesday 10th of July 2018

I don't like the idea of anyone lecturing a cancer survivor about the nature of their own experience and it's deeply offensive to suggest that God deliberately caused someone's cancer. However, my own experience is that having breast cancer has been a near death experience that prompted changes in my awareness of my own mortality and appreciation of my continuing existence. I imagine that my attitude would have been changed equally by surviving a train wreck or being the one person pulled from the tornado debris alive. Is that a gift? More like random good luck. I dodged a bullet because, as bad as it has been, it could have been so much worse. The list of what I've lost is long, but right at the top is happy obliviousness to the briefness, the fragility, and the randomness of life. So, now instead of the daily ordinary routine of life with all it's comforting boundaries, I live a life fraught with uncertainty and worry. What will happen to my 10-yr old if I die in the near future? Are any of these ordinary tasks important in comparison to taking care of my body and health? Do I really want to spend time working at (fill in the blank) when I don't know how much time I have left? Sadly, the importance of these questions was no different before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I never thought about my life ending except in some distant very old age, and I wasted so much precious time. Is this sudden awareness a "gift"? No, but I understand how someone may make a bad word choice in trying to describe it. It's both enlightenment and a burden to realize that in the end, there won't be enough time, that one must every day prioritize what is most important, jettison the unimportant without a second thought, and not waste the finite days and hours of your life on bullshit.

Maryanne M

Sunday 8th of July 2018

Hi Nancy. Thank you so much for this post. I recently was diagnosed with Breast cancer while getting a reduction. I was told there is no other way it would have been found until too late. That being said, my options are now very limited and I’m having a double mastectomy in a few weeks. Even the options with my surgery are limited because I’m relatively healthy. People/family are telling me how grateful I should be and they don’t understand how upset it makes me to hear. Am I lucky that I made the decisions that discovered this, yes. But I don’t want to hear it from other people who have no idea what I’m going through and are telling Me to “just feel grateful” for anything especially when I am approaching my first of 3-4 surgeries because I’m not overweight instead of the 1 surgery I would have had if I was. Insane right? And when I try to tell them how I do feel they force their statement down my throat, again. I don’t feel grateful, not right now. I feel pain from the surgery I had, I feel angry, I feel upset and a bunch more things. Your post and the others on here has made me feel validated today. Thank you.

Nancy

Monday 9th of July 2018

MaryAnne, I understand. Your feelings are valid - all of them, and feeling the full spectrum does not mean you aren't grateful. Be real. Be you. It's enough. Good luck with your upcoming surgery and thank you for sharing.

Carol A Miele

Wednesday 4th of July 2018

If cancer is a gift, I want to return it. I want a full refund, no exchanges...thank you. I have Stage 4 breast cancer and do not feel I have received an opportunity to be a better person or to improve my life. I feel, instead, that a huge steel door has slammed shut and that I can never get back to my old life on the other side. That is, in itself, such a devastating feeling that I can't even describe it. Words fail me here...and I like the power and intrigue of words. I don't, however, like when words are used in a vacuous way...spoken to ease your mind but instead rattle you. I've been told I could 'beat this' and I've had more than one finger wagged in my face telling me to 'be positive'. It made me feel like a small child who received no presents on Christmas Day and was lectured to be grateful for life and not to expect more than the gift of being alive! OK. But everyone else got gifts and they aren't giving them away or offering them to me. Being excluded from the luxury of having a life that hasn't been threatened by a terminal, incurable illness does not feel like an opportunity to show gratefulness. I suppose people are trying to make lemonade out of lemons when they say cancer is a gift. I'm here to tell you its a lemonade you wish you never had to drink. It comes with much suffering and a guarantee to kill you...eventually. No thank you. I'd prefer to keep the lemons...if only I'd been given a choice.

Nancy

Monday 9th of July 2018

Carol, Well said. Well said indeed. Thank you.