Cancer Is Transforming

Someone asked me recently what one word I would choose to describe my cancer experience. The word I chose then and would choose today as well is transforming. 

That’s what cancer does. It transforms.

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to hear the dreaded words you have cancer, perhaps has a different word of choice to describe her cancer experience.

I’m sticking with transforming – at least today and in this public domain!

I intentionally chose the present tense because cancer’s transformation is an ongoing process. It’s never over because cancer is never truly over. Even when you’re NED (no evidence of disease) like me, its shadow lingers.

For me anyway, in so many ways and due to so many reasons, cancer continues to be transforming.

People who hear the words you have cancer sometimes say they can divide their life into two parts; the time before cancer and the time after their diagnosis. Cancer is a great divide.

I certainly do this.

Sometimes my other life feels not only very different, but also very distant. Sometimes I have to really stop and think about what things were like before.

Cancer transforms because it takes a lot.

Cancer took my mother and others I care about. Cancer took chunks of me away, quite literally as well as figuratively.

Cancer keeps on taking… That’s what cancer does.

Sure, all of this transforming has some good parts to it.

I like to think I’ve made a few positive changes since I was diagnosed.

For instance, I have set new priorities and reassigned the order as to what things are most important to me.

I look at the simplicities as well as the complexities of life through a different lens now. I value things differently; some things more, some things less. I’ve formed new friendships and rekindled a few old ones. I’ve discovered new passions and identified new dreams. I’ve changed careers.

I think about the future, but worry less about it, if this makes any sense. I waste less time. Okay, I try to waste less time. I hurry less. I think more, which really means I judge less harshly and accept more freely.

While these are good things, I will not give cancer credit for them.

I owe cancer nothing.

I’ve certainly had more than a few glimpses into the dark side of cancer’s transformation.

I witnessed the ugliness and cruelty of cancer up close. I witnessed the illness and slow agonizing death of my mother from metastatic breast cancer. Witnessing such a thing is transforming. I am changed forever due to my cancer experience and hers as well. Cancer has also taken friends of mine.

Cancer takes; it takes a lot.

This is why I will never ever call it a gift. It’s not.

I have not magically morphed into a better person either because of my cancer experience. I’m still just me. This ‘cancer makes you a better person’ theory is just another attempt to tidy up the messiness of cancer.

No, cancer is more like a thief.

You don’t thank a thief.

Today, even three years later, I am still trying to figure out life on this side of the “great divide.” I am still trying to figure out the balancing act of life post-cancer diagnosis.

I’m not there yet.

But I am planning. I am writing. I am adapting. I am doing.

Mostly, I am just ‘being’.

And I am still transforming.

What one word would you choose to describe your cancer experience?

Have you ever been told your cancer is a gift or made you a better person and if so, how did hearing that make you feel?

If you’ve had a cancer diagnosis, do you sometimes consider it the ‘great divide’?


37 thoughts to “Cancer Is Transforming”

  1. What a challenging question, Nancy. Cancer is disarming – it strips away pride by forcing us to ask for help. It steal comfort by showing us we are vulnerable. . . and it just plain knocks you on the butt by showing up in the first place! Cancer is revealing – forcing us to face our fears, joys, hesitations, and does the same in those around us too.

    But you know what, I like cancer is transforming. It’s a word that can go either way and covers the good and the hard of the disease. ~Catherine

    1. Catherine, Disarming, revealing – those are pretty good too. Transforming does cover a lot of ground doesn’t it? It’s a word that seems to work for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Nancy, this post is brilliant, as is this statement:

    “Cancer is more like a thief. You don’t thank a thief.”

    Amen, sistah!

  3. This post rang so true… It is like a thief and you’re right – you don’t thank a thief. I am healthy and haunted but my life isn’t the same. It is divided by BC and AC. Thanks for posting.

    1. Mae, ‘Haunting,’ that word says an awful lot doesn’t it? It does seem fitting. Thanks for getting it and thanks for taking time to comment.

  4. Cancer is indeed a thief. It ended my childhood and made me grow up fast when it took my grandmother. It later attacked my mother, but did not take her. And now it has transformed my life. There have been both positive and negative changes, just as with any other life struggle.

    1. Elizabeth, For some the transformation starts early in life and never really ends. Good point about all life struggles creating positive and negative changes. Thank you for adding your voice to this discussion.

  5. Confusion…
    Dictionary definition:: 1. the act of confusing or the state of being confused
    2. disorder; jumble
    3. bewilderment; perplexity
    4. lack of clarity; indistinctness
    5. embarrassment; abashment

    That pretty much sums it up….
    Love alli x

  6. I can’t speak to what it is like to have cancer as an adult because I had cancer as a little girl who lived every moment IN the moment. I didn’t spend much, if any of my time thinking about what cancer was taking or stripping away from me. After all, my days were comprised of school and play. I had no time nor patience for the down side of cancer.

    The onset of late effects from my cancer therapy is when my heart became the battleground of my life as it gasped for squeeze to meet the demands of my body in those last days of my life or so it seemed.

    Yes, I have lost a lot secondary to late effects of cancer treatment, but what were the alternatives? They were nowhere to be found. I lost time with love ones, I lost time with my husband and our son, extended family, and friends. Yet, again, I find myself saying this is life. Bad things, really bad things happen every day that bring us to decision making points in our lives.

    Am I going to transcend the tragedy, incorporate the lived experience into my person, and make something beautiful, or am I going to be defined by it allowing it to become our identity.

    I choose to transcend and steer clear of the muck and mire of counting my losses because at 35 years out from Ewing’s Sarcoma and 5 and 1/2 years out from heart transplant,the good has far outweighed the bad..

    1. Stephanie, None of us wish to define ourselves by the muck, but acknowledging it is part of healing and part of moving forward. The muck is part of who we are too. You have certainly done a wonderful job of rising above it all. You are a fine example, Stephanie. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I think I like the word transforming–it seems “change” gets associated with “for the better”, which is not always the case as you’ve covered and I’ve blathered on about on my blog as well.
    This cancer-as-gift concept which is crossing my line of vision a lot lately is troubling. I try not to be judgmental toward anyone who embraces that idea, but it is very difficult, and I hope those of us who do not consider it a gift continue to be vocal about this.

    1. Cancer Curmudgeon, I try not to be judgmental too. Everyone certainly has the right to view their cancer experience through their own lens. As for me, that whole cancer is a gift and makes you a better person thing just will never work. And by the way, I love the way you “blather”!

  8. Nancy, what an excellent post. I sure resonates with me, with my breast cancer, and then tamoxifen induced endometrial cancer experience.
    You said it all so well.
    I was, again, told to accept my iatrogenic endometrial cancer as a “gift” and nearly gagged.
    We don’t ask patients with other diseases to embrace them: do we ask people with strokes, heart attacks, MS, etc to find their disease a blessing?
    And cancer will be with us forever, hopefully as NED.
    I saw a patient who is suffering with neuropathy recently, and she felt as though her collateral damage was dismissed and denied, and she felt abandoned. I find this all too common: the fragmentation and the attitude of “We saved your life, quit complaining.”
    thank you for a wonderful post

    1. Kira, Gosh, you make an excellent point about those other diseases. And you know what? A doctor just told me that very thing (your life was saved) this week when we were discussing yet another one of my issues. Of course, I am glad to be here, but geez… the side effects of treatment are no small matter to deal with. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  9. Nancy,

    POINT ON! Beautifully written … I have goosebumps.

    I can’t tell you how much it annoys me when people say treat cancer as a “gift”. ARGHH It is indeed a thief — the intruder we didn’t give permission to enter.

    Thank you as always, for letting your beautiful light shine in all our dark corners.


  10. Great post, Nancy! I really like your word transforming: it captures positive and negative changes resulting from such a life-changing word. And any positive changes are not related to cancer being a gift. Like you, I don’t feel like a better person because of cancer, but I’m a different person. How can I not be?

  11. dear nancy,

    I just do not know how you do it – you always come up with such provocative and relevant issues, and questions to ponder which really helps us all define much of what is hard at times to articulate.

    I like transforming as the best adjective for cancer. I keep an image in my mind of a cavalcade of looks into the mirror, and the thoughts that accompany them. here are some of those thoughts:

    OMG, how COULD I have cancer? i feel so well. wonder what will happen to THAT?

    oh, for god’s sake -that fucking arimidex is sucking every pore inside out and these wrinkles were NOT there yesterday!

    smile. just smile and breathe. you can do this.

    but i don’t wanna lose my hair! i just paid big bucks for a head full of foils and look at the back of my bare head – it looks like i have a huge ridge of thick bone all across the base of my skull. it looks neandrathal. goddammit. i’m a fucking BONE HEAD.

    (with tears streaming down my face, hand cupped to my mouth to cry silently) -i can’t let hugh see me cry. he has to believe, we both have to believe we will both come out of these two horrible cancers together. we HAVE to be there for each other. sniff, sniff, tissues, i need tissues.

    smiling at myself, post first round of chemo – wow! i did good, i’m gonna knock this BC on it’s ass. oh, now i KNOW i never had those bags and dark circles under my eyes last week. smirk, then say, “oh, fuck it, who cares”.

    playing with my wig -fuck- i can’t get it to not go askew when i turn my head. i’ll flip it around, wonder if it might look better on backwards. maybe…with a headband…?

    oh, god help me – i see the panic running rampant in my eyes and my face – hugh is laying in a pool of blood i can’t believe he fell backwards down the steps onto the brick walk. where are the gauze pads??? what should i do first? sonofabitch, i am a NURSE. get. it. together. he needs you – quick!

    NED, i am NED!!! happy dance in my head, big bright smile. i decide to treat him like a lover, pooching out my lipsticked mouth and kissing the mirror where i drew a happy face of NED. i’m going to leave it, hugh will think it’s hilarious!

    i just saw hugh looking in the bathroom mirror, smiling at himself. he called out to ask which manly fragrance to take on our first trip in 3 years. now i am hugging him from behind and our faces are glowing – we’re off on a road trip – tomorrow! yay!

    okay, i know you are nervous – hugh’s big check up is in the morning to determine if he’s achieved remission. keep hope BIG AND ALIVE. and remember, anxiety is contagious. i think we need to have a good game of scrabble, and a DRINK. i’m taking off this stupid wig – he said i look pretty just going commando.

    face frozen, eyes vacant, if only i could lay next to him, why can’t i stay all night, there’s room to squeeze into that hospital bed. i should be WITH HIM. he should know i am there. i want to whisper to him how he walked normally just 24 hours ago – for the 1st time in 4 years – and if he just rests for awhile, soon, i know we will walk out of the fucking CICU. please, please, give us both strength to get through this. he’s in remission for Christ’s sake. i know he will be okay, he HAS TO BE OKAY.

    i talk out loud in front of the mirror, the haggardness from within my head and heart is draped across my face. HUGH DIED – HE DIED. i am a widow, i. am. a. widow. i stay sobbing in the bathroom – i can’t lay down – i will never get up again.

    i locked myself in the bathroom – it’s mothers’s day, and my children and grandchildren are coming for the first time without their papa, gone only 6 days. i look in the mirror, trying out smile styles so i can greet them without falling into a puddle on the floor. i give up – go downstairs, hold it together, then join my darling grandson, brian, who is holding me tight and sobbing with uncountable tears. we vow that we will be “each other’s huggers, mimi” and we are.

    there are many more images locked into that mirror, some of unbearable sadness, some of the triumphs hugh and i made together, some of pride in having taken baby steps, BIG baby steps, to being able to live alone.

    as the next chapter of dealing with a new cancer begins to unfold, i look at myself and often ask, how did it all happen? why did it all happen? the mirror holds onto it’s secrets and doesn’t give a single thing away. but i know what is hidden within it’s depths. a wonderful love story, days and months and years of loving our life together and making every day count. and even though the mirror won’t reveal anything, i know, i know that each good thing looks brighter and each bad, heartwrenching thing will fade with time. and i am truly transformed, mostly by love, by love that never dies. sometimes i pretend that hugh is looking back at me, that he is smiling at me, and i can FEEL his presence and his love and his believing for me that all is as it should be. each day…one step closer…i have not lived through such days to discount my blessings, but live every day remembering how they laid themselves so lavishly around us. they are still there, and i must draw upon them to feel my gratitude and keep reaching out for LIFE. i am a woman transformed and welcome all the good, the bad and the ugly to settle into my heart and my face so i will always know who and what i am.

    love, XOXO

    Karen, TC

  12. Nancy,

    I simply love spending time on your blog. I do want to clarify my comments on this post as I would not want anyone to think that I don’t have muck and mire days, and yes, they are part of this wretched cancer experience.

    I also do not hold myself up as an example for anyone facing even remotely similar circumstances. There is no place for judgement as we all do THE best we can given whatever situation or news we find ourselves facing in any moment.


    1. Stephanie, I love having you here! Your insights are so valuable to us all. I agree there is no place for judgment, though I also know sometimes I fall short here. Perhaps we all do. Thanks for stopping by again – no need for the clarification, but thanks just the same. And I still think you are a fine example, too, by the way.

  13. Nancy, I really liked this post and much of it closely resonated with my own cancer experience. I often look back at photos taken pre cancer and I swear I detect this lightness in me that I no longer see. Everyone tells me I dont look that different but I can see it. I have been through something huge, profound and draining and the strains show. Cancer does change you and everyone feels something different. I go agree that I cant think of anything actually good about cancer and it is a total cop out! Hugs from Norway, Kate (OBB)

  14. A gift? No, not the word I would use either, but yes, have heard that. I do like your word for it- transformation. I agree. That is a good word for it. I am certainly different, see things differently, approach things differently, deal with people and situations different. That is a good word. I like that. Going to use that. I also agree it is a thief and no you don’t thank thieves. I had great cancer and my brother colorectal and I don’t thank cancer for either. He had a very painful experience with it and three months ago gave up and took his life. He did not want to put himself through it any longer nor have his daughters watch him. I am not certain but I am pretty sure it had spread to his liver and I think he was done. Last I knew was there was something they saw on his liver and he never talked about it again. It has been horrible and devastating and no I don’t thank cancer for this, I don’t see it as a gift. Some say it was a gift that I was diagnosed as it helped him to open up to me about what he was going through. I guess I see that but it all pretty much sucks. I am cancer free now- woo hoo- and go back for 6 month check ups for a while which is just fine with me. I have felt a little guilty that I was able to beat it and he wasn’t. I know that is crazy talk but can’t help it. I have enjoyed reading your blog and just finished up with your grief posts which I also enjoyed. You are a very talented writer and I look forward to your next post.

    1. Katherine, I am so sorry for your loss. It’s so sad that on top of everything else, your brother took his life. Your family has been through so much. I’m really sorry. I’m glad you are doing well, and please don’t feel guilty for that. I do understand about the survivor’s guilt. I think we all feel that way sometimes. Cancer is such a crap shoot. It just is. Thank you so much for reading this post and a few others too. I’m glad to hear you found my grief posts worth while. Again, I’m very sorry about your brother. Thanks for your kind comments. My best.

  15. Transforming is a good word. Sadly cancer taught me to be more selfish. I am working trying to unlearn that. I had been a very unselfish person and I wasn’t taking as care of myself like I needed to, so I had to learn to say “no” and focus on myself. I liked the person I was more before, but I am finding her as time passes. 🙂

  16. I have to admit that while I have not referred to my breast cancer as a gift, I have felt and shared many gifts that have come as a result of my cancer. I, too, would use (have used) the word “transformative” to describe my cancer experience. I’ve written on my blog about how, if I have to f-ing have breast cancer, I feel like I better make it count for something, and making it count for me means using it as an opportunity to transform myself and my life in ways that better reflect who I want to be and how I want to live. It’s not easy, and as I write this, I’m battling a dose of depression, but a lot of positive has come out of the last 7 months since I was diagnosed (at age 39).

    1. Jenny, There are some good things that come with bad experiences, including cancer, but this still doesn’t make the bad experience a gift. I do think cancer is transforming and I know a lot of people assume that means transforming in a positive way, but it transforms in tons of ways. As you know all too well of course. None of this is easy and I’m sorry you are struggling with depression, which is a common thing with cancer. Thank for reading and for sharing. Sharing always helps. I will visit your blog soon too.

  17. I have to assess my feelings of my diagnosis each day. After pondering your article and questions, all I feel is confused. In my most private thoughts, I’m NOT scared. I feel like I have a platform now. People don’t necessarily expect me to be enlightened or changed, but they listen. They are inquisitive and they pay attention. I feel the need to act on this curiosity as much as possible to share my new found knowledge. So few people have the resources to learn about advanced stages of cancer, why would you research something that is not directly affecting you? Anyway, I had fourth stage non-hodgkins lymphoma when I was 13. My mother had fourth stage hodgkins when she was pregnant with me. My grandfather and my uncle both died from advanced stage cancers. My diagnosis in July was a bump in the road until some research was done, until my family fully understood that there is no long term remission this time. I am still not scared. I’m not angry. I’m not sad or worried or panicky. So for those reasons I say I am confused, because I should be sad, angry, worried and a bit panicked. I am stoic and at peace with my diagnosis and to me that is a blessing. I live day to day, I’m not trying to change much yet, but you never know what the next scan will tell you, so I’m trying to plan for “my future”.

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