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.


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 malarchy:

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

31 thoughts to “Calling Cancer a Gift Or an Opportunity for Enlightenment Is Insulting!”

  1. If someone truly feels that their own cancer what is a gift, I suppose that is entirely their right to feel that way. Not being a cancer survivor myself, but instead as a healthcare professional working with people who had cancer, I can say most people I’ve talked to wouldn’t describe it as a gift. They might say there are some positives that came out of it when they are looking back, But those did not come without a lot of suffering.

    One of my pet peeves(and this might be a topic for another blog post, and Nancy if you’d ever like to collaborate on a blog post about this I’d be happy to…) is when people treat Cancer like it’s a sporting event. When someone has cancer and they tell them you’ve got this or you can beat this without having a clue what the person is up against. I’ve even seen healthcare organizations talk about their cancer treatment programs as “game changers“. As an athlete myself I get very annoyed with people who make assumptions about Cancer as if it’s a competition or a tournament of some sort. That’s why I wrote in my book about athletes with Cancer but you don’t have to be an athlete with Cancer to hear those sentiments.

    That’s my two cents on this topic.

    1. Thank you, Alene – as one who HAS a history of cancer, I’m so happy to see someone address those catch phrases – “you’ve got it!” “you can beat this” even “you’ll be o.k.” The sporting aspect hadn’t struck me but the emptiness of the platitudes never ceases to grate on my sensibilities. It’s encouraging to see that someone looking at this from the outside sees this so clearly.

      Nancy, you know my take on cancer as a gift – unfortunately, that concept simply refuses to fade into history. Thank you for raising it again – maybe eventually society will get the message.

      As for your reader, I think your suggestion that she quietly raise it with her instructor (if possible) or write a note is probably the best approach. What a difficult, ugly and unacceptable position to be put in. I feel for her.

      1. Julia, Yes, I think I have an idea about your thoughts on the cancer/gift notion. The concept does refuse to die, for some reason. Maybe I’m going up against a brick wall on this one. I like your idea for that reader to write a note. Sometimes that’s easier. I’ll try to pass that along. Thanks so much for chiming in on this discussion. Appreciate it.

    2. Alene, I agree, a person can view her cancer experience any way she chooses, but there does seem to be this relentless societal expectation to be better post-diagnosis. I’d say nearly every day, for sure every week, I see story lines or headlines floating across my feeds like: things cancer taught me, I’m a better person now, now I know what’s important (I really don’t get this one), now I live life more fully and so on. I rarely read such stuff anymore as that sort of thing grates on my nerves. I share your pet peeve about the sporting event framing of cancer too. I always wonder what beating cancer even means. Thanks for sharing your two cents. Always appreciate your insights.

  2. Since my own BC diagnosis a year ago, my emotions have been all over the place. Being deaf, I had some unique experiences while going through it, yet there are also mostly universal themes many if us experience and relate to.

    I wouldn’t call it a gift either. I’ve had some life experiences prior to the diagnosis that shaped who I became (childhood sex abuse is just one) so facing adversity and other challenges wasn’t new to me.

    I will say this. There was a movie back around the early 90’s called The Doctor. With William Hurt in the lead role. He meets a friend in radiation who has terminal brain cancer. She said “I see my tumor giving me freedoms I never had before.”

    For me, that became quite true. I no longer take anyone’s BS and have become far more true to myself and adept at taking care of me first, with no apologies.

    Some might view that as a gift. Cancer does change people, for good and bad.

    I’m still processing a lot of what I went through. But for me, it’s given me clarity and forced me to start focusing on my own self vs putting others first.

    So in that regard, it gave me freedoms I didn’t give to myself before.

    1. Cindy, I don’t take as much BS anymore either, but that might be more to do with my age. For me, it all comes back to how can we call cancer a gift if so many people are still suffering and dying from it? And maybe it’s not so much the gift notion perse that drives me crazy, though it does, it’s the notion that after dx, a person is supposed to be better, understand what’s important, appreciate life more and so on. All of those are still just different ways of reframing the gift notion. That’s the way I see things anyway. Thank you for sharing how you see it.

  3. Some of us discover reserves of strength within ourselves in coping with a cancer diagnosis and its attendant treatments; in coping with friends and family members who have difficulty dealing with our diagnosis; and in dealing with the Promised Land of survivorship that turns out to be a wilderness. Discovering those strengths may make empower us and enable us to be better advocates for ourselves and others. But that doesn’t mean that cancer is a gift.

  4. The cancer I have- stage 4 metastatic Breast Cancer- is not a “gift” primarily because I’m literally paying $$ for it. Has it changed me and my life? Absolutely. The path will never be the same. I am a different person and I think like many situations you don’t understand until you KNOW. So if this person has had cancer and calls it a “gift”. I’m shocked to some degree. I did have someone who told me she cured her own cancer with some really gross soup she drank. I was willing to take a risk and am relatively sure she didn’t actually have cancer otherwise my oncologist would have told me to drink that soup.

    1. Lisa, I don’t think the instructor has had cancer. But I don’t know. I resist the notion that cancer, or any life-altering difficult experience, is part of some “enlightenment program” to show us what’s important. I just don’t buy into that. I even bristle (not right word probably) when my friends with mbc say things like that in generalized statements, though of course, they have every right. I fully realize your life is forever altered, but to me, that’s different. Hard to explain, especially in a comment. ha. And gosh, someone actually said that to you? My goodness…Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  5. Nope. What I learned is how tough the surgeries, chemo, and radiation was. I learned that I was easy to abandon. I learned that I would actually survive. For now. When people told me how sorry they were for me I said I was likewise sorry for them, everyone is mortal. It was my fun as no one took it well.

    1. Lin, Thank you for sharing. Interesting response you gave people when they said they were sorry. I bet they didn’t know how to respond to that!

  6. The person or person that thinks or believes that cancer is a gift was probably a drug company or Doctor making tons of money off of someone’s unfortunate circumstance of contracting cancer. It was a gift to them, new house, car, boat, jewelry,vacations made available off of someone else’s unfortunate circumstance. They certainly cant afford any of the cancer gifts listed above, because all their money is being shelled out to save their life! Gift my butt, what idiot thought that up? Oh I know, the same one that thought up the phrase, “This is your New Normal!”
    Like throwing up, skin lesions, losing your hair and sex drive, all by poisoning your body with the medications prescribed to save your life and countless other prescriptions to counteract their side effects.
    Oh yeah, let me have some more of that!.
    Just say it like it is. Cancer sucks! And for God’s sakes, show some compassion and don’t utter either of those phrases. Say instead, I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m here to help you fight, take my hand. And then help. SARAH A SURVIVOR

    1. Sarah, Thank you for your passionate response. I agree. Cancer sucks. I’ve written a post titled, “Cancer Sucks. Period.” Should probably pull that one out again.

  7. My cancer was most certainly not a gift that I would wish on anyone. It was hard and cruel and exhausting and debilitating. I actually had someone come up to me and say, ” I’m so proud of you!” What? Proud of me being ill? Proud of me going through chemo and several surgeries? My response was “oh uck, please don’t be” . Are we proud of someone dealing with diabetes, or lupus, or any other terrible diseases? I didn’t have much choice in my treatments. I did what was suggested by my oncologist. ..for the most part. Do not tell me you are proud of me or to keep fighting, or put up your pink ribbons in honor of me. I am just trying to get through to the next day. No welcome gift here. I can do without any such gift or any more surprises.

    1. Donna, Well, that’s an interesting one. I don’t think anyone has even mentioned she/he was proud of me regarding cancer, specifically. I imagine that person meant she/he was proud of how you were handling things, but I hear you, loud and clear, on why it bothered you. Thanks for adding to this discussion.

  8. I don’t buy the “gift from God” ideology, as if God gives us cancer if we are not, perhaps, good enough people.

    Cancer is certainly not a gift.

    In terms of enlightenment, I believe the cancer experience is different for everyone. As you know, before I had cancer, my life was a living hell with a husband who was horrible. I never had the courage to leave him, and I probably would’ve stayed with him until the relationship killed me. When cancer happened — and I’m not grateful it happened — it made me re-think my life. I realized that I didn’t fight so hard to live and be cancer-free, only to stay with my husband. Staying with him was no life, and I wanted to live — I mean really live.

    So cancer was the catalyst to my divorce. For me, it caused enlightening moments. However, that doesn’t mean I’m glad I got cancer. I wish I never was diagnosed with it. Cancer is what it is: a horrible, horrible disease.

    1. Beth, In your situation and like you said, cancer was a catalyst. That’s different, IMO. You get all the credit for the changes you made. You got the divorce proceedings rolling. Would you have done that w/o a cancer diagnosis? Who knows. Regardless, cancer and all the fallout you’ve dealt with are certainly not gifts. I wonder if you feel you are a better person at your core. Each of us is a constantly evolving being, hopefully for the better. Cancer just should not get credit for positive things we manage to do. Thank you for sharing, Beth.

  9. We receive gifts. Armies wage wars. People with curable diseases survive. I’m not newly normal because or in spite of a diagnosis of metastatic cancer – breast to bone to liver with forced menopause at age 49. Treatments come and go, work then become ineffective. Money, which once purchased a lifestyle, now purchases a life. I don’t see a tree with presents under it, including the one containing cancer addressed to me, nor did Hanukkah’s eight practical gifts include hormone receptor positive de novo stage four breast cancer. My past four birthdays were gifts in and of themselves. My optimism threw itself off a bridge and my life became a cynical comedy of errors ever since March 2015. I’m not a miracle. My own blog journals the life of a communicative human being whose partner cannot seem to pull himself out of depression long enough to support me in the way I need but there’s no gift worse than need versus want. I didn’t want any of this crap. And I certainly haven’t had trouble asking for what I want in life. But none of us had a handbook shoved in our faces the day the doctor said the fateful words – and those weren’t a gift either. The pink bows and multicolored metastatic bows on top of it all become ways for compan to pink wash their marketing campaigns and rob the disease that ultimately kills us of its seriousness. I write so I don’t implode from the words that rob my sleep and dreams and I only hope that it’s those words that will somehow make a small change in the works and leave a legacy of a human being who suffered but kept her creativity and sense of humor and persevered. I’m not too proud to admit I’m still afraid, brave as the front I suppose I put up in front of myself every day. But I am not going to accept a this vampire that’s invaded my body and slowly sucks the life out of me as a gift, or my perseverence and strong self advocacy as a war. People who’ve never had cancer say some really ignorant things not out of malice. So I save the anger for the cancer most days. But alas, no one should stay silent about having a booklet handed to them and no one should feel ashamed to educate another person on why a cancer diagnosis didn’t come wrapped in pretty paper. FFS – we pay for it. The nature of a gift is to create a happy feeling in the giver and receiver. Even religion teaches that. Sorry if I rambled a bit – it’s 3:46 am and I’m wary from insomnia induced by menopause and by cancer. Gifts don’t cause anyone to feel this way. I invite anyone to check out my blog – I love to commmunicate and to have other women and men who understand without apology helps as much as chemo some days.

      1. I had a bad day and didn’t realize I’d already commented on this but it’s my cancer on a bad day response. Thank you as always for allowing your forum as a place to speak my truth but your posts can so inspire me to let it all out and for that as always I thank you. I’ve reblogged this post on mine. I think everyone’s got to bite the tongue in their head before telling someone how to feel about cancer.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

    1. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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 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.

    1. 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

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