If cancer’s a gift, you can have it right back

Precisely one year ago today, I had my final radiotherapy session, thus ending the hospital-based part of my treatment for breast cancer. I couldn’t let the occasion pass without writing something. Here goes.

Each to their own, but I want to say for the record that it’s beyond me how anyone can view cancer as a gift.

Everything changes when you get a cancer diagnosis. “Whatever your prognosis, whatever your hopes, whatever your personality, the second that you know that you have cancer your life changes irrevocably,” says Peter Harvey, a now retired consultant clinical psychologist whose essay on life after cancer treatment is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject.

Yes, good things happened to me as a result of having had cancer. I met some great people, made new friends. A huge amount of love, affection and support came my way. I learned a lot. I wrote. And as you’ll know if you follow my blog, I’m enjoying the benefits of the positive lifestyle changes I made as a result of my diagnosis.

I accept that I’ve experienced to some extent what’s called post-traumatic growth, ie positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. But that’s not the point. I’d really far rather not have experienced the trauma in the first place.

You do come out the other end of your cancer treatment with a certain freedom you didn’t have before. Lots of things that I would have worried about before now just don’t bother me. On other levels, though, despite trying hard not to, I still sweat the small stuff. I still get annoyed at things I know are really not worth getting annoyed over. I’m very aware now that you do only live once but, trust me, I really haven’t had a big spiritual awakening like some people who’ve had cancer (I still can’t bring myself to use the term “survivor”) claim to have had.

A friend asked me a while ago if I thought cancer had changed me. In fact she may have said damaged rather than changed. I pondered the question and said I thought it had made me sadder. I’ve thought about it a lot since and I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

I’m aware the bottom line is that I’m alive. I’m hugely grateful to the doctors who treated me and to all the other people who had a part in my care. I’m hugely grateful to the family and friends who supported me during treatment and beyond. But that doesn’t mean I’m grateful I had a disease whose treatment is, frankly, brutal and leaves you at risk of serious side-effects for the rest of your life. I’m not grateful I now have to take anti-oestrogen tablets every day for ten years or more that increase your risk of developing osteoporosis and womb cancer. And finally, I’m not grateful I had a disease that can hide undetected in your body for years and come back at any point and ultimately destroy you.

One year on from finishing what’s called “active” treatment (“…3, 2, 1 and relax. Congratulations!”), I’m well into what Peter Harvey calls “the long, slow process of putting [your cancer] in the right box in your life – not forgetting about it, not denying its importance or power, not pretending it didn’t happen”, but incorporating it “into your own life pattern and experience in such a way as to not interfere and interrupt any more than it has to”.bad pressie

The impact cancer has on you as an individual is just one part of it, though. A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect you. It has a massive impact on those around you. Wouldn’t saying it was a gift be insulting to them?

Everyone has their own way of coping. If some people do that by viewing having had cancer as a gift, fine. As for me, I’m pretty sure I’ll never feel that way. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to feel that way. At most I’ll concede that if cancer is a gift, it’s one where you know the second you open it that you’ll be taking it back pdq to exchange it for something you actually like and are happy to take possession of.







6 thoughts on “If cancer’s a gift, you can have it right back

  1. After reading your post I feel some tension within, a bit defensive. It is ironic for me to read your post this morning, because I’ve been playing with the idea that everything is a gift. Of tackling the puzzle of figuring out the angle to tell my life story to myself that leaves me feeling grateful. So far it is pretty challenging.
    I’ve been thinking too much about the collateral damage of my treatments, for me the loss of a breast is fairly inconsequential compared to the impact of losing my lymph nodes, and the losses associated with that. Then there is the hearing loss, lingering neuropathy, and brain rewire. .. Looking at the gifts of insight given to me from cancering is fairly easy, coming to terms with the impact of treatments, not so much. I want to get to the place where I have a better story within myself though. Cancering irrevocably altered my life, believing that it is somehow a gift from the universe, as is everything, helps me keep my head above the dark waters of despair. That’s why I want the gift.
    I do get that getting a cancer diagnosis is a lot like being given a gift wrapped bomb. The bow doesn’t protect us from the impacts.

    Wishing you well from across the blogosphere –

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing. We each have to find our own way of accommodating what has happened to us and I fully appreciate that those ways can vary hugely from one indiviudal to another. I wish you all the very best with your search for yours. Very best wishes.


  2. Hi Maureen,
    Guess you know how I feel about that “cancer is a gift” notion. Unfathomable. As you said, everyone copes in her/his own way. As far as I’m concerned, how could something that kills so many, including my own mother, ever be considered a gift? I can’t get past that. And never will. Thank you for writing about this topic that always seems to resurface.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Maureen
    Thanks so much for linking to the Peter Harvey article. So much of it resonated (has he been through cancer treatment himself? If not he’s incredibly perceptive). Reading it has come at a very good time for me, as I’m 3 weeks away from ending my treatment (15 more rads to go) and I feel slightly like I’m about to walk off a cliff.
    Cancer as a gift? No thanks! Although it’s now woven into the pattern of my life and has prompted me to make some pretty big life changes (job, location, lifestyle), hopefully for the better.
    Hope your recovery continues smoothly, and good luck with the big bike ride!


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Much of this post resonates with us. Yes some good things have come from cancer, the support and the love you receive from people, but I would not call it a gift. The nausea, the fatigue, the constant anxiety and worries, the ER visits, hospital appointments, the fact that you have to put life on hold at times, the fact that cancer is dictating where we live (in Boston for treatment rather than in Ireland) are not what I would call a ‘gift’.
    Thanks for sharing your feelings though! Great to know we are not the only ones thinking this way 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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