Post-Cancer Diagnosis, Where Is My Epiphany?

Have you ever wondered what great lesson(s) you’re supposed to have learned from cancer?

I have.

After all, this is another cancer expectation that’s out there and continuously perpetuated. We’re supposed to learn from, and therefore, potentially be grateful for the life “detour” that is cancer, are we not? (Umm. No!)

We are supposed to be transformed into a new and improved version of our former selves, right? (Not necessarily.)

I often read articles about cancer survivors proclaiming to be transformed, enlightened, improved upon, bettered, or whatever. It seems many have experienced some sort of epiphany. I’m happy for those individuals. I mean that. That is not sarcasm. But it just hasn’t worked out that way for me.

What about for you?

Sometimes, I wonder if perhaps I’m a slow learner or something. Sometimes, I wonder if someone forgot to give me my copy of the, “how to properly do and learn from cancer,” handbook. (That is sarcasm.)

After five years, actually after ten years if I count my mother’s cancer experience, I sometimes feel I should be enlightened about many things by now. About what I have no idea. I wish I did. I really want to know…

Where and what are my cancer lessons? 

And what is an epiphany anyway?

In this context, it’s generally defined as a revelation, a sudden manifestation, or realization about the meaning of something; an illuminating discovery.

Well, that has not happened for me.

Sure, I have picked up some nuggets of wisdom during the past five years, but a lot, maybe even most of the stuff I have learned from and about cancer, is totally shitty stuff.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post with that exact title – “10 Shitty Things Cancer Has Taught Me” – or something like that. (What do ya think?)

There are way more than ten things too. But I probably shouldn’t publish such a post if I should end up writing it. Maybe I shouldn’t have even published this one. Because you know, the Positivity Police are always out there lurking.

Update:  Here’s that post I mentioned above, 15 Shitty Things Cancer Has Taught Me. I finally got around to writing it, and it’s actually one of my personal favorites. Maybe you’ll appreciate it. Or not. You decide.

Okay, so I’m being rather sarcastic in this post and cynical and maybe even a little grumpy.

So what?

Sometimes, I get weary of all the cancer expectations and cancer language nonsense out there, much of which makes no sense to me. And okay, sometimes I get cranky too. (Again, so what?)

I sure would like to know…

Where the heck is my epiphany?

Have you had yours?

Following your cancer diagnosis, do you sometimes feel pressured to learn ‘great life lessons’?

Do you feel you are a better person post diagnosis?

What’s something, good or bad, you have learned as a direct result of your (or your loved one’s) cancer diagnosis?

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Post Cancer Diagnosis, Where Is My Epiphany?

39 thoughts to “Post-Cancer Diagnosis, Where Is My Epiphany?”

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Feel free to rant away and let sarcasm rule if it feels right. There’s no right or wrong way to do cancer, nor is there a right or wrong way to react to cancer. Some people have great epiphanies. As you know, I feel so very different after cancer — not a better or worse person — but so different.

    I did learn a lot about life through cancer. Unfortunately, many things I learned were about all the crap cancer unleashes on us. But I did learn good things as well; I learned that in my darkest moments, medical staff were there for me. One nurse rocked me like a baby when I cried, doctors told me they cared, so I found that during a crises, some people will step up to the plate, while others will drag you down even more.

    I think you should write that 10 Shitty Things Cancer Has Taught Me, even if you never publish it. It might be cathartic.

    Great post, Nancy!

    1. Beth, I have learned some good things about myself too and about others, but I still maintain I am not essentially changed as a person. I am still me. But then I’m also not the old me. It’s all so complicated, but I do know I have not had some profound awakening. Mostly, I have learned things I didn’t ever care or want to know. And I might very well write that post sometime, so thank you for that good advice. Publishing it, well, not so sure about that. Thank you for reading and sharing your insights.

  2. Nancy,

    I feel pressured to learn life lessons after cancer. I think there’s also a hidden message behind the “lessons learned from cancer.” I am extremely sensitive to this topic because of the culture I come from, where cancer has been viewed as a “punishment.” Out of all the comments I’ve heard about “what not to say,” this is by far, the worst. (Writing about it now.)

    Those people who expect me to be better because of cancer are probably suggesting I didn’t know how to do life prior to cancer. To me this is very arrogant and judgmental and I don’t welcome such comments. Could it be that this is a way of reminding themselves that THEY need to make changes in life before they die?

    I am better at prioritizing because my health comes first. I am also quicker at removing negative situations from my life — those I have control over. Life circumstances change all the time. Before I had cancer I had to do the same thing in order to adjust accordingly. Cancer is no difference.

    I can say I’ve learned a lot about others through my cancer experience.

    I say you publish that post on “the 10 Shitty Things Cancer Has Taught You” because I want to know if I have a list too. Now you got me thinking about it.

    Thank you for writing about this topic which is so important to me. I say we all need to speak up so we can make people aware of the inappropriate comments. We have the right to react too.

    1. Rebecca, That would be awful to have your cancer perceived by others as a punishment. That hidden message you mentioned is exactly why I don’t like that better person thing. It implies we didn’t know how to do life before cancer. I also feel it puts up more barriers as it implies we now know something others don’t know, which I guess we do, but still it’s a dangerous line of thinking IMO. I see it as a weird kind of pedestal to be put on. It’s hard to articulate. Of course, we do learn things, but I say we all learn things no matter what our circumstances are and giving cancer credit for teaching me stuff just doesn’t feel right somehow. And as for that shitty list, I’m pretty sure we all have one. Thank you for reading. I look forward to your post.

  3. I experienced two epiphanies, which I know you read about in my memoir. They were the impetus for my book and the founding of Beyond the Pink Moon. Guess I’m fortunate that I had a couple of positive revelations that were indeed illuminating. I am grateful. Look where it led me… to Lovelies around the globe, including you my dear twin. Btw, I never view you as cynical, sarcastic or grumpy. You’re just sharing your truth. I love that about you, Nancy!

    1. Nicki, I have a memoir going, too, as you know. And my blog came about in part because of my diagnosis. But I was already working on a book about grief/loss as well as planning a blog, so that was already in the works before my diagnosis. I have, of course, learned some things too since diagnosis, but nothing profound. And I didn’t need cancer to ‘show me the way to live’ or appreciate things and people in my life. I am grateful for many things too, including meeting you. Life and feelings are complex. We do things and see things differently and this is as it should be. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I appreciate your kind words.

  4. It took a second cancer diagnosis (eek!) to show me what I learned from my first diagnosis. While this is not the best way and I really do not recommend it to anyone. My thought is do not stress about this. When its time to know, you will figure it all out. Okay, a not so great answer but thats what happened for me. Good luck!

    1. Caroline, I am not sure there is anything for me to know or learn from cancer per se as far as major life lessons go. Maybe I have to wait longer. lol! Thank you for chiming in.

  5. not sure it was cancer dx that led to an epiphany but living with mets bc I have learned how to live my life in a better way… Live in the moment, try not to expect anything of others, make dreams happen, follow my interests, show compassion for others, try to be insightful about what others may be experiencing, learning to live with losses, finding common ground with others grieving different things. I still haven’t learned to live life in moderation though! I am grateful to know these things and to practice them…

    1. Gail, I have learned those same things you mentioned, but I’m not sure it was cancer that taught them to me. That’s the part I have trouble with. I appreciate your comments. Thank you.

  6. Please post “10 Shitty Things Cancer Has Taught Me.” I think it’s a valid point of view! Why is it that only those who are enlightened or those who consider cancer a gift get to brag about their experience as if it gives the experience more meaning or a higher status? Why can’t those of us who feel that cancer is a curse and are really angry about it have our rant? It’s not any less valid or deep or whatever. It’s truth.
    I am not better because of cancer. I wish I was. I just keep fighting for normalcy. With a child and full time work, that’s all I have time for and it’s all I want. I just want my life back. The way it was, as imperfect as it was, seems fine to me.
    I’m saying all of this with the utmost respect to those who do feel changed for the better because of cancer. I’m happy for those people. I just feel like every experience and point of view has validity and meaning that can be shared and learned from.

    1. Carrie, I think many of us are fighting for normalcy. I am not trying to rewind my life, I move forward every day. I just don’t think I’m a better person due to my cancer experience. I like to think I’m a better person than I was five years ago just because… I’m not sure that even makes sense. We are all a work in progress, cancer or no cancer, and why would we want to give credit to cancer for any improvements anyway? And thanks for the endorsement regarding that shitty list post. Maybe I will write it at some point. Thank you for your insights.

  7. No real epiphanies here, but cancer fine-tuned the lessons I had already been learning as a caregiver since 2001. Picking my battles is one of those lessons, which is why I couldn’t care less about the positivity police. Too busy fighting cancer and the side effects from treatment while caring for my partner, thankyouverymuch.

    One lesson stands out above the others, though, which I call: Honor your temperament. At its most basic level, this means dispensing with the “shoulds.” Put more broadly, however I feel and whatever I do is the right thing for me, period. No need to justify. No need to explain. Definitely no need to apologize. I am who I am and it is what it is.

    Cancer did give me some useful insights into being a better caregiver. I was up-front with my partner about my limitations, especially during chemo. That made her feel freer to be more open with me about her own limitations. These days we ask questions like, “Do we have enough resources (food, water, rest, etc.) to have this conversation?” In that way, cancer has helped us communicate better with each other, and I have a better understanding of the challenges she deals with.

    Adding my vote in support of a Shitty Things list!

    1. Elissa, Cancer fine tunes things we already know/knew, maybe that’s a better way to look at it for me anyway. I don’t care too much about those positivity police either, but I do find the whole concept of always staying positive to be downright annoying. Maybe what cancer does is magnify things, including qualities that were always there within us. Thank you for your comments. Lots of food for thought there. And thanks for that ‘vote’.

  8. Ha ha, I keep joking (sort of) that I did indeed learn things from cancer or the cancer experience, but they are not “approved”–you know, not that whole life is short, be grateful stuff. I’ve been keeping a list of those things to eventually write a post, but am realizing the list will never be complete. (I should just go ahead and do it). Can’t wait to read yours!

    1. CC, You’re right, that list would never be complete. But you can always add to it, right? You should write that post! I hope you do. Thank you for reading and commenting on this one. And for giving me that little nudge.

  9. With your permission… This is my comment about epiphany…or as I like to call it cancer and my search for enlightenment.
    Cancer and my search for enlightenment

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2011. Too many of us have heard those words in stunned disbelief. I sat thinking “no”… not even with an exclamation mark behind it…just a quiet little “no.” As the days unfolded and the reality started to sink in I had a glimpse of what that might look like. The surgery, the treatments, the drugs… what I was unaware of at the time were some of the deeper implications. I am a voracious reader and I did the only natural thing – I picked up all the books I could find on having cancer. I was determined to be the “good” patient. Unfortunately, at least for me, along with all of the advice offered from various experts, there was frequently a theme. It was of finding enlightenment. And it was echoed in the well-meaning advice of people around me. Apparently in between throwing up, pain and exhaustion I was supposed to use all the time I now had on my hands to find my true calling and become a much higher being.

    I am an overachiever so I tried.

    I tried to find it in meditation. Every day I spent as much time as my body would allow on my yoga mat. I breathed. I contorted. I relaxed. One day I thought I finally caught a glimpse of it. I had the sense of being watched over. Then I saw the shadow at the window and realized it was the neighbour’s cat. Admittedly she looked very zen. What did she know that I didn’t? She also got that look on her face after I would catch her digging in the flower bed.

    I flirted briefly with the idea that I could find it in the kitchen. Some people seemed to find peace and joy in cooking. Apparently there is a kind of meditative quality to creating nutritious meals from scratch. I almost made it into the room before I came to my senses and realized I haven’t been in here for years and probably couldn’t find a pot if my life depended on it. I am not sure I own a pot. I must…

    I searched for inspirational messages around me that might have some meaning. You know the ones. On the bill boards, sent to you through facebook, pinned above customer service desks. Everything happens for a reason. Just let it go…Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Never wrestle with a pig you just get all dirty and the pig likes it. (I kind of liked that one.) Surely one of these pithy sayings might resonate and the lights would go on. One day while having a latte accompanied by a piece of chocolate two things occurred to me. The first was my moment with that really good piece of chocolate might be as close to enlightenment as I ever come –and the second was I remembered vowing to myself a few years ago I would stop taking life advice from the sides of take out coffee cups. That’s when I bought myself a to-go mug.

    I visualized white light, I visualized healing, I visualized myself right out of this predicament and onto a beach in Mexico. When I stopped visualizing I was still in the middle of it. Maybe I was simply not strong enough? Maybe I was doomed to fail?
    In a vision it came to me what I needed to do was stop putting so much pressure on myself to become something better than what I am. I am not perfect but I am good enough for now.

    Maybe it is not cancer patients who need to seek enlightenment but the world around us who is made so uncomfortable by the glimpse into their own mortality. Let us be ourselves. The people you knew before. Sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, sometimes we are angry. Sometimes we have flashes of enlightenment.

    1. Tina, Thank you for sharing your post. “I am not perfect but I am good enough for now,” and “Let us be ourselves,” I like those lines in particular. Well said.

  10. I don’t know if I’d call them epiphanies, and I certainly hope I would have reached them without having to go through this horrible disease, but I did learn many life lessons from the experience. Most were relating to living life in the moment, since nothing is guaranteed; making the most of every single moment; embracing what is right here in front of me TODAY. As always, a though provoking post, Nancy.

    1. Claudia, That’s the thing, I bet you were doing fine with those things before cancer, but of course, it’s not my place to say. I’m glad you feel you have learned life lessons directly as a result of your diagnosis. I truly mean that. I’ve learned a thing or two as well of course, but I don’t feel radically changed at the core as far as who I am. Maybe my epiphany is still coming. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  11. No big epiphanies, but of course I’ve learned some things during cancer. Just like I learned things during my stints as a caregiver, while raising 3 kids, a career of teaching school, etc. Whether good or bad, so long as we live, we learn and grow. If somebody else gets an epiphany, good for them, my lessons usually come gradually over time and many life events.
    The positivity police are definitely in need of an epiphany, however. One that teaches them judging the attitudes of cancer patients and survivors needs to be replaced with genuine empathy and compassion. A hug and a tissue beats a sermon on positivity any day.

    1. Elizabeth, I love your comment and the line about the positivity police needing an epiphany made me laugh out loud. I’m like you I guess; I learn my lessons over time and many life events. And your last sentence is right on. Thank you for sharing.

  12. My favorite book about The Cancer Experience is called Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, by Miriam Engleitner, a metster who died several years ago. I saw that title and thought “YEEEEEESSSSSSSSS. Finally someone who won’t blow smoke up my ass.” I don’t think there are many life lessons or nuggets of wisdom that I’ve gleaned from having MBC that I wouldn’t trade for getting to see my kids grow up…nor are there many I couldn’t have gained in some other, less horrifically awful way.

    1. Beth, Sounds like a book I need to check out. I’m writing a book myself and I’m thinking the title will be something similar to that. And I agree the life lessons can be gained in other, less horrific ways. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Hello Nancy. So much to think about in this post. I don’t recognise any epiphany through my tango with cancer, nor through my mother’s diagnosis and untimely death and not through her sister’s all too early exit either. I’ve witnessed a lot of cancer but I can’t recall even a passing glance of any form of epiphany. I am not the person I was before – I am not as nimble, lithe or robust. I am more aware of the tiny thread my life hangs by but is a constant sense of one’s own mortality really a positive? I’m not so sure. I take better care of myself now than I did before but mostly I try not to think about any of it too much these days because there is very little happiness in those memories.

    1. Tracy, Excellent point and question you raise there regarding constantly sensing our mortality as a positive – is this really a positive? I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before. It seems you and I are on the same page regarding this epiphany thing. Thank you for reading and sharing. And I’m sorry about all that cancer and loss your family has dealt with.

  14. How I wish my sister, officer-in-training of the positivity police, could read some of these postings, including this one. But that would require a willingness to try and understand something unknown, however scary that might be. It might also possibly mean finding another way to assuage the feelings of guilt for not really being here for me at all. Putting a positive pinky-smiling spin on anything to do with breast cancer is, in my estimation, , one way to feel like there is less need to do anything. I say that more with sadness and frustration than the anger it might initally sound like, as she was the only person, sans a friend in Europe, who was calling regularly. However her constant pinkwashing of everything, and mostly, her telling me how wrong I was in everything I was doing to get through this cancer treatment (I am done with surgery, chemo and up to radiation right now, has forced me to put a huge wall up with her (example of this is in my research on treatments, such as chemo (I was borderline for needing it even, Her2 stage 1) and radiation, even initial choice of LMPX vs MAMMX) She told me that I was terribly negative for doing research and asking questions, then the final straw for me was when, in the middle of the Taxol treatments, she told me that there was really no such things as side effects or in particulary, in “collaterial damage” from chemo, because if that were true then the FDA would not approve it. Yes, she said that, and in a very angry voice! You cannot make this stuff up!

  15. Nancy, Thank you for your thoughts and musings. Your blogs all all have a touch of humor, whimsy, sarcasm, and pain For many of us you are a lifeboat out in the vast ocean of cancer land. Please write your truth.

  16. Wow! Interesting. It’s now 2019 and I’m seeing this. I finished chemo and radiation 2018-2019. It’s now April 20, 2019 , 1 day before my birthday! I’m still trying to understand this whole thing. Why do I still have mood issues related to cancer diagnosis? Why do I struggle with my hair, what there is of it? Why do people think everything is fine, move on. I still don’t feel fine in my head at times. I to wonder- what was the purpose, what was I suppose to gain? I don’t feel totally changed. Somewhat- I try to be nicer to others and more positive, but it hasn’t been life changing for the better. And most people close to me will not use the cancer word. Does that mean I didn’t have it? Didn’t go through this crap. But thankfully, I’m here and life goes on, I will try harder.

    1. Debbie, I hear you. I understand. We move forward, of course, but it’s never over. Not completely anyway. (And your experience is still very recent.) Some will understand this and some will not. My best to you and happy birthday! Thank you for sharing.

  17. I have had no epiphany, no revelation, my life was pretty amazing before my diagnosis, now it’s a shadow of what it was, personally, professionally, physically, financially, you name it. I worked hard, I had a great work/life balance, I had a wonderful social life, I volunteered my time and donated my money. I was very happy. Now, well… I’m alive ‍♀️

  18. Thank you for this, Nancy. Almost every essay you write for cancer patients can be so applicable to the heart patients I write for, or to anybody who has faced any type of serious, life-threatening diagnosis.

    The notion that this diagnosis (no matter what body part it’s affecting) is somehow a GIFT – after which we can now “live life to the fullest” – is a very unfortunate platitude offered by the well-meaning when they don’t want to say the truth, which is almost always more like: “I’m so sorry – what is happening to you really SUCKS!” Dismissing the awfulness and terror a person is going through is neither kind nor inspiring…

    I’d also like to add that SOME patients may choose to genuinely believe this platitude is true for themselves. That’s the important difference: patients cope with a catastrophic diagnosis in whatever way seems to help them through it. My concern is for well-meaning others who misguidedly assume the role of (as your reader Ellie K wrote here:) “officer-in-training of the positivity police.” I want to yell at these police officers: “JUST STOP ALREADY!”

    Or better yet, why not take a look at the Empathy Cards of Emily McDowell who creates “real, authentic ways to communicate about sickness & suffering. I love her cards, mugs, all kinds of accessories that – instead of dismissive platitudes – carry sentiments like: “Let Me Be The First to PUNCH the Next Person Who Tells You Everything Happens for a Reason!”

    I know that you wrote the book (literally!!!) on this perspective, and continue to spread the word! Preach, girl!

  19. This is where I’m at. And it’s so refreshing to hear someone else feels the same way. I have cervical cancer and am 5 days post op, that I’ve described as being “scooped out like a pumpkin”. (And given much side-eye at my description). Everyone swears this is my new lease on life, that I’ll see everything differently, I’ll be happier! But so far, all I’ve done gotten more comfortable with death, and have an insane amount of guilt that my daughter may have to go through this too. I don’t feel like a warrior, or a survivor. I just feel heartbroken, and I’m terrified that I’ve lost my sexuality. Maybe in time, that will change. But it’s hard when everyone expects you to have that epiphany! It really feels like it negates the hardship. (Ah, this was way more negative than I intended it to be!! But this seems like a safe space) I’m really hoping to find acceptance and support in other women, as time goes on. Seriously, thanks for sharing. And I really did enjoy your other post you mentioned. ❤️

    1. Erin, Thank you for your candid words, which btw, are not negative at all. This IS hard. And those expectations do not make things easier. Your surgery was very recent and you have a lot to process. Take your time. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t be afraid to tell someone their comment isn’t helping or to tell them what you really need. I wasn’t able to do that early on. This definitely is a safe place, and I’m glad you felt comfortable sharing here. Wishing you all my best. Btw, still waiting for that epiphany…

  20. I’ve thought about epiphanies in life alot lately. I believe I’m the same person I was before. I remember how trivial things like losing my hair during chemo the first time was such a big deal. Two of my 5 kids were graduating from high school and university. Having hair at those occasions was essential to me. My long hair was part of me. I did have it cut shorter for those 2 occasions. In almost ritual fashion I decided to shave my head one day as it actually physically hurt. I pretended to be long to a group of Hare Krishnas. I sang “hair is gonna, hair is gonna” in front of a mirror. How liberating this was. I know I have not changed to any great degree since then. I now have 7 grandchildren and another on the way. I was diagnosed stage 4 several years ago. I don’t even count anymore. This diagnosis was as shocking as the one 12 years earlier. I will be and have been on some sort of treatment for the rest of my life. It’s a fact. I was blunt before. I was realistic before. I may be a little more mindful of the feelings of others. At least I try. No epiphanies here either. Just life, how ever long it may or may not be. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy most of my life. I hate treatment. But it’s only a part of my life.

    1. Shelley, I appreciate you sharing your insights on epiphanies. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one who’s not had one post diagnosis, so it’s always good to hear that’s not the case. Enjoy those grandchildren and the new little one coming soon. How exciting! Thank you for sharing.

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