You Don’t Have to Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro: The Pressure to Be an Overachieving Cancer Patient

(Photo of Mt. Kilimanjaro by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via wikimedia commons.)

Are you an overachiever, or have you ever been labeled as one?

I am not, nor have I ever been called an overachiever, and this is okay with me. I don’t need to be the person who gets the most done in the shortest amount of time, earns the top prize or whatever.

Sure, I get stuff done. Generally, on time even. But early? Hardly ever. And yes, I like to do a good job, especially when the task is something I care a lot about – like my writing, for example.

But even with my writing, I have never been, nor do I plan to be, an overachiever. If this were the case, I’d likely have my next book already published or at least have the manuscript written started instead of having the ideas and words still rolling around in my head, which is where they still are. Mostly.

Oh well. I’ll get to it.

Recently, I read a post by fellow blogger, Marie Ennis O’Connor, called, Letting Go of the Myth of Perfectionism. Reading it gave me the nudge to write this post. (Thank you, Marie)

Marie’s post was specifically about perfectionism and how it’s a trap many people, cancer or no cancer, fall into.

There are perfectionists among us everywhere. Heck, maybe you’re one. Which is fine, btw. Some of us are wired that way. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

But this post is less about being a perfectionist and more about being an overachieving cancer patient. The two are related, but I don’t think they’re the same.

Do you?

There is an expectation (yeah, I know, yet another one) that seems to be fairly prevalent in Cancer Land. The expectation that seems to suggest that after a cancer diagnosis, you better do something with your life. (Yeah, I know, like you were just sitting around twiddling your thumbs before.) Get stuff accomplished. And not just little stuff. Big stuff.

It’s sorta like the bucket list concept on steroids.

After reading Marie’s piece, I read one about Amy Robach titled, Amy Robach Marked 5 Years Following Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis by Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I guess we were supposed to be inspired by this feat.

My reaction was to chuckle and okay, roll my eyes, too, because you see, I wrote about this VERY THING regarding exercise in my memoir:

Exercise, yes, but don’t beat yourself up trying to run marathons or climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, unless of course, you want to.

Yep. I actually mentioned climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great Amy Robach climbed that mountain if that’s what she wanted to do. Kudos to her and her family, too, for making the trek with her. It was symbolic for her and a way to channel her fear. I get that. I respect that.

But her life is not like mine, and I’m guessing not like yours either, post-cancer diagnosis. Of course, it wasn’t before either.

So, why is her trek up the mountain supposed to inspire us?

Call me a wet blanket if you want, but it’s probably not something most of us aspire to or are even inspired by. I mean, I walk around my neighborhood a couple miles most days – climb a mountain, are you kidding me?

A very wise blogging friend I follow and encourage you to as well is Carolyn Thomas, author of the excellent book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. Her article, Post-Traumatic Growth:  How a Crisis Makes Life Better – or NOT, has always stuck in my mind. (Yeah, post-traumatic growth is a thing.)

These words from Thomas seem especially relevant to this post: 

My concern with the Post-Traumatic Growth concept for patients is that not only are we supposed to manage a serious health crisis, but we’d better do this recuperation thing correctly so that we can emerge triumphantly at the other end with glowingly heroic results. Oh, and don’t forget: inspirational! 


Who needs the additional pressure to be heroic or inspirational following a serious illness diagnosis?

Nobody. That’s who.

Again, a snippet from my book:

No one should feel pressured to accomplish profound things following a cancer diagnosis. No matter what your cancer type or stage, trying to reclaim and maintain your life and sanity will be profound enough. Trust me. It will be.

Cancer Was Not a Gift

After a cancer diagnosis, you are not obligated to do big things. Don’t lie awake at night waiting for that epiphany either. If you do have one, great. But don’t lose sleep over it if you do not.

Me, I’m still asking, where is my epiphany?

I am here to remind you that following your cancer (or other serious illness) diagnosis, you don’t have to start a blog, write a book, mentor others, walk or run in races, wear pink (seriously, you do not have to this one) or whatever the heck else you think you’re supposed to do. You don’t have to do any of that stuff. No, you do not. Your job is to live your life as best you can. Focusing on that is no small task.

The pressure to do those other big things, whatever the heck they might be, can add yet another burden for the “ordinary” cancer patient who might be struggling to just get out of bed, go to work, take care of the kids, load the dishwasher, do the laundry, walk the dog or whatever the case might be.

You don’t have to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro unless, of course, you want to.

Personally, I am WAY more inspired by those who manage to carry on with their lives following a cancer diagnosis, mundane parts and all.

After all, living life the best way you can IS doing something BIG.

Am I inspired by those who climb mountains post diagnosis?

Not so much.

What about you?

If you want to read more articles like this one, Click Here.

If you like this article, you might want to read, After a Cancer Diagnosis, You’re a Better Person, Right? It relates to this one.

Cancer or no cancer, are you an overachiever or have you ever been called one?

Have you ever felt pressure to do something “big” post-cancer (or other serious) diagnosis?

Are you inspired by those (like Amy Robach) who go on to accomplish what others perceive as big things?


the pressure to bean overachiever post-cancer diagnosis #cancer #breastcancer #health #mentalhealth

30 thoughts to “You Don’t Have to Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro: The Pressure to Be an Overachieving Cancer Patient”

  1. This topic interests me since I like to run marathons and trail races and I do use them to mark important pieces of my life or to dedicate to someone important to me. For example, I was training for a half-marathon when grandma was dying from cancer and I would think of her while getting through a 10-mile training run in the cold. I would think how she would do anything to be able to run right now, and I should stop feeling sorry for myself. I later dedicated my race to her, which took place about 2 months after she died. I wrote a message to her on the back of my race bib.

    I can see why some people are drawn to accomplishing endurance events after an illness or losing someone or whatever it might be. But of course some people are NOT drawn to this and it’s silly to put expectations on anyone.

    1. Lindsay, I thought of you as I was writing this for those very reasons. The thing is, the expectation to do big things isn’t so much about doing something physical necessarily. It’s more a general expectation that since you’re alive (post diagnosis), you better accomplish things or else you’re blowing this “opportunity”. I think it’s mixed in there with that concept of cancer makes you a better person. Ugh. Anyway, that was the point I was trying to make. Some people do enjoy the endurance and physical challenges they put on themselves – before and/or after cancer, or no cancer at all, of course. And that is admirable. It’s the societal expectations put on cancer patients that drives me crazy. As you know. Thank you for sharing. And congrats to both of you again on finishing your 50 miler!

      1. I don’t like when I hear things like “so and so won a gold medal in whatever sport. She conquered volley ball and now she’ll kick cancer’s ass too.”

        Oh, really? Is that how it works?

    2. Oh gosh, I am so not an overachiever! As a post cancer recoverer, I’m really proud of myself if I’m able to accomplish all the mundane tasks and chores I used to. I did not go back to work after cancer since by the time my treatments were over I was ready for SS anyway, although I did do a little home health care for awhile . This was not my chosen profession but I did it to help out a friend who needed help with a family member. I did it until the dear elderly woman passed away from covid. Now if I can get a walk in every day and keep the house clean, I’m happy! It’s the little things.

      1. Donna, I’m sorry to hear that your friend died from covid. That’s sad. Not an overachiever here either, and I’m fine with that. Seems you and I are of similar mindsets. 🙂

    1. CC, I think the “super cancer patient” thing is tied up with the concept of post cancer you’re supposed to be a better person and all that malarkey. The epiphany thing. The gift thing. Well, I don’t have to explain what I mean to you! Thank you for reading and reminding me about your post. I’ll have to go give it a re-read.

  2. I guess I sort of felt that way for a while. I remember going for a long hike with my family too soon after surgery. Yup, never doing that again! I thought they were going to have to helicopter me out! Then taking a snow hike with my husband. And I even did one relay for life of which I hated and have never felt so exposed. Another never again! Now I just live day to day and pretty much do what I want. I walk a mile a day. It’s enough for me. Oh, and once I swam across a lake with my daughter, but I love to swim so that had nothing to do with pushing myself to be better after cancer. I would do that again because it’s fun.

    1. Donna, Sometimes we have to prove to ourselves we can still do certain stuff, I guess. I did a 10K a month before my mastectomy and then did another a year later. But I didn’t consider that doing anything “big”. It wasn’t. I just think cancer patients sometimes feel like they’re supposed to start “accomplishing things” and as Carolyn T. said in her post, be heroic and inspirational too. Picking up the pieces and moving forward day by day is plenty to accomplish. Unless, of course, a person wants to set high goals, whatever that means to her/him. And wow, swimming across a lake with your daughter – impressive! I’m pretty much a non-swimmer, so that sounds anything but fun to me. Good for you for living day to day and pretty much doing what you want. Sounds like you’ve got things figured out! Thank you for reading and sharing too.

  3. Oh, I love this Nancy. I’m very much NOT a marathon-running, jump-out-of-airplanes, climb-mountains kind of gal. Never been much of a risk-taker. Definitely not an overachiever. And I’m content – happy, actually – to just live a simple, conventional life with my daughter.

    I’ve expressed this sentiment pre-cancer, too. A lot of my peers are obsessed with “hustling” and “living their best life” and “doing all the things.” My social media feed is loaded with post-marathon selfies, organic whole food dinners, perfectly curated gender reveal parties, exotic vacations, new entrepreneur ventures. Which, hooray for them. For me, though, it’s a massive relief to give myself permission to be ORDINARY. Getting through a normal day – I feel profound, real joy in that.

    Thank you for writing this. Love to you!

    1. Liz, It’s so good to hear from you. I think of you often and wonder how you’re doing. I love how you give yourself permission to be ordinary, to embrace it even. I’m with you on that. I love my ordinary days, my ordinary life. There’s something comforting and freeing about “ordinary.” That societal expectation to do “big” things post-cancer diagnosis is real. It’s almost a weird competition. If you don’t accomplish bigger or more things, you’ve blown the “opportunity” cancer gave you. What nonsense. It’s almost like the more you accomplish the better cancer patient you are perceived to be. As you said, getting through a normal day and finding joy in that, is profound. Thank you for reading and taking time to share your thoughts too. I hope 2019 is kind to you and your sweet Ingrid. Love to you as well.

  4. hey nancy,
    great post again!
    i’ve had a few remissions and every time “post cancer” i find physical goals and achievements a great way to focus. one time it was a half marathon (the first in my life) another time it was a mountain that i looked at all my life but never took on. for me this means i have recovered physically, to some extent at least. i would, however, feel very uncomfortable posing as an ‘inspiration’ to others. having completed the marathon / mountain etc is only one part of my story. it means i am physically better then i was at the height of the illness. it doesn’t mean that i am physically well every day. and it sure doesn’t mean i am emotionally and mentally out of the ditches.

    i can climb a mountain one day and its not a big thing yet the next day getting out of bed and through the day can be a major effort. if i were still using social media, i would probably be posting about the mountain climbing, not the effort it requires in getting through the day despite feeling really down. we tend to display the sunny sides of our lives and not talk as much about our struggles or ordinary days. as a result there is this pressure building up but it is built on a picture that is incomplete.

    as somebody living with cancer i had to find my new normal and it has been and still is a painful process. you see, i had to give up my career, accept that my energy levels, memory and cognitive functions are impaired. some things haven’t changed from how they used to be. but many things are entirely different. cancer is a highly personal experience. some or many of us, we have to re-think our aspirations and dreams and come to grips with the losses post cancer and this can be hard and take time.
    the best support i received during treatment and beyond is the love, faith and acceptence from my family and friends who are having open ears and arms, who don’t have expectations of me.
    i believe it is important post cancer to follow your instincts and do what is right for you, not what others think you should do.

    1. Eli, Of course, the Mt. Kilimanjaro idea is merely a metaphor, so to speak. I completely get and agree that setting personal goals, whatever they might be, post diagnosis is how we heal, regain our footing and so on. It’s the societal innuendo suggesting we better not blow this opportunity that bothers me. You’re not dead yet, so…and all that. Thank you for sharing your insights. You are very wise, and your last sentence says it all way better than I did!

  5. I like be this post and yet I do feel like cancer has made me a better person!
    Not directly though.
    I had done a bit of counselling in the 6 months prior to my diagnosis and had already changed a lot in my life. Then after diagnosis I took the whole of treatment off work and really focussed on figuring out who I wanted to be and what I wanted life to be like.

    I am happier, more confident and have a more balanced life. I also marked end of treatment with a flying trapeze lesson and I’m training for my first half marathon. BUT I wanted to do these things before I got cancer.

    I guess what I’m saying is cancer treatment gave me time and space to focus largely on myself for the best part of a year. With that self indulgence came personal growth. But it was only possible because I had enormous support and I feel very privileged to have had that support and that time.

    Do I feel grateful I had cancer? Hell no! But acknowledging that there were gains as well as losses, helps me to cope with the trauma.

    1. Kat, I hear you. I like to think we would all be better people today if we’d gone through cancer or not. Everybody faces challenges on a daily basis, and most of us strive to be better people no matter what. I think it’s great you have taken time to focus on yourself and that you’ve experienced personal growth. But you did all the work. Cancer may have been a catalyst, but personally, I wouldn’t give cancer credit for your hard work. I’m glad you’ve acknowledged what helps you cope with the trauma and that you’ve found more balance. Thank you for sharing your insights. My best to you.

  6. When you think about the challenge of getting through cancer treatments, it’s pretty ironic that many friends and family give more credence to climbing a mountain or competing in a triathlon than to the medical treatments we have endured, sometimes for years. I think that’s what really bothers me about the hoopla when a cancer survivor gets rave reviews for competing in a race or climbing a mountain. It somehow diminishes the struggle that went before. All of the women who are in the midst of chemo, or trying to deal with side effects of AT , who are openly sharing their experiences with others, who, despite losing their hair, their strength, and self esteem, somehow keep going day after day – those are the women who inspire me. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro seems easy after cancer.

    1. Lennox, Well said. Those who keep going day by day, regardless of where they are in their cancer experience, they inspire me more too. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thank you for writing this Nancy. I distinctly remember feeling disappointed in myself that I hadn’t “achieved” more after my cancer diagnosis – as if just getting through it wasn’t achievement enough! I love what Lennox says and you underscore it – those who keep going day after day inspire me too.

    1. Marie, The thing is, for many, this feeling of underachieving doesn’t go away; in fact, the feeling often continues for years, regardless of stage, I might add. There are so many societal expectations for cancer patients that are just plain burdensome, harmful even. And yes, those who keep going day by day – people who do that inspire me too. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  8. Yet, another great post! Thank you. I am an over-achiever for what I choose. But I didn’t choose cancer. a little over a year after my initial diagnosis, they found a benign brain tumor, removed it, and THEN it was like I was a new person. An opportunity opened up because I had so much more energy! I thought chemo brain was dragging me down, but it was this tumor. So, yes, I have been accomplishing things (or trying to) that I had ignored prior to the cancer/tumor thing. And I hike Santa Monica mountains. 🙂

    1. Linda, Perhaps we are all overachievers to some extent anyway, in areas we choose to be. Hadn’t thought of it exactly like that, I guess. Thank goodness that brain tumor was found and taken care of. And good for you for hiking in those mountains! Thank you for reading and chiming in on this one.

  9. Oh how relieved I am to know that other people who’ve written books and have blogs I wish mine were more like providing awesome and awe inspiring advice, well researched articles, and humor that tickles even the most curmudgeonly of cancer patients. As for me, I have minor daily goals that I meet 50% of the time. I still can’t get around to “drink more water” and “eat more protein or even food today.” Talk about ordinary. But I’ve put on my yearly list of shit to accomplish – publish one of the books in 2019 I want to write. Most likely it’ll be the poetry chap book. For some reason I believe I can make it to LBBC this year but the new highlight of my life is that I will be on Taxol through the end of May so I may not make it to Philadelphia this year. My other pedestrian goals are to get in on the immunotherapy trial in Bathesda which I’ve started the process on with extending my Taxol treatments and getting my genes tested, results due in 2-3 weeks. These are the trials and tribulations that make us go on I suppose to meet GF next day. Which sometimes is like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or running a full marathon or publishing a whole real book. Every day is a huge accomplishment for all of us. And as we lose one another and our journey of survival comes to an end we mourn our sisters and brothers and inbsome way mourn a loss of our own journeys along side of them. Now the day seems like an ordinary day of cleaning the cat puke – he actually spun around in a huge circle and spewed catfood from dining to living room. As I cleaned up I tripped over the vacuum causing a huge pail of water to soak down the living room 9 x 12 foot white and now slightly gray rug. Followed by putting my too hot butternut squash soup in the blender and pulsing it one too many times and cleaning the ceiling of my kitchen on a step ladder. Ah, all I want is the ordinary life. With a housekeeper in my next life, please. Now off for my nightly comedy show of choice and a hot bath. Praying for sleep and for a new ordinary day, I bid you all peace no matter what you do with it. And I love eachof you for touching my life from across the internet and many “miles to go before I sleep,” to quote a favorite poem – “Do not go gently into that good night.”

    1. Ilene, Thank you for sharing your insights on this topic – you covered a lot of ground! “Every day is a huge accomplishment for all of us.” Well said. That about sums things up, I’d say. I do hope you get your poetry book published this year, if that is one of your goals. Here’s hoping you have many ordinary days. Hoping we all do. There is beauty in the ordinary.

  10. Oh, Nancy… This is one of my favourite discussion topics. Thanks so much for quoting that “Post-Traumatic Growth” section in my book. Don’t get me wrong, I think that those who feel the need to accomplish outstanding things after a medical crisis have a perfect right to do so if they wish. I get that thrilling sense of “I DID IT!”, I really do. What I specifically cringe over is that pervasive expectation that ALL of us could do the same thing (if we would only pull up our socks and stop moping around…) That’s expectation is so hurtful when we can barely brush our teeth, never mind climb Mt. Kilimanjaro…

    Today, for example, I dragged myself out of bed where I’ve been nursing a brutal head cold, got dressed and walked down to the village to pick up a few last-minute groceries because it’s just started snowing here on the west coast (a very rare event!!) I still feel like hell and am functioning at barely half-speed, but I’m pretty darned proud of myself for that walking accomplishment! Wooooo Hooooo….

    1. Carolyn, I am totally with you, and I loved that post-traumatic growth post you wrote. Like minds. Ha. And you should be darn proud of yourself for walking to the store when feeling like crap. That’s no small feat at all – especially this time of year. It reminds me of when I had newborns in the house and at the end of the day, I’d feel like I’d gotten a lot done if I had managed a shower and unloaded the dishwasher. Everything is relative, I guess.

  11. I’m an overachiever, always have been. NOT a perfectionists, however, which I sometimes wish that I could be. For cancer, I read too much, comment too much, and can be way worked up about.


    1. Linda, You’d really be putting a lot of pressure on yourself if you were an overachiever AND a perfectionist. So, there’s that good news. Thank you for reading and commenting on my cancer-related posts. Hope they don’t get you too worked up though. 🙂

  12. I would like to know if that lady was climbing mountains, or planning to, before cancer? Just curious. Having a goal isn’t a bad thing, but going on a cruise as a goal is more MY style! LOL. Just gettibg back to seminirmal was my gisl for years. I was still seeing my onco every 3 months for 4 years after my treatment. After going to 6 months for 2 years, as finally moved to annual 2 years ago. So now its 9 years after treatment, and going for my Dexa today, so my 3rd annual apt is coming up. My treatment was not the express train. It was, um, the “Scenic Detour”. LOL it took me 3 years to get my implants to stay in. That was my first goal after chemo. When I finally made that, I got to have my knee replaced. LOL. Goals change. Everybody just do you. That’s what matters.

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