Few words have a greater ability to upset our assumed place in the universe than cancer. That single word spoken by a doctor can put your life into a tailspin you are ill prepared to deal with. From that day forward, your life and the life of those close to you is forever changed.
According to Siddhartha Mukherjee, in his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, one third of women and half of men will develop cancer during their lifetimes. And the older we get, the more likely cancer becomes. “Mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging,” Mukherjee writes. “Cancer is thus intrinsically related to age.” We know many things that increase our likelihood of getting cancer, but we still have no idea how to prevent or ultimately cure it.
The older we get, the more aware we become of our mortality. Few people have not been impacted in some way by cancer and it remains a universally fearful condition. It may sound far-fetched to hope for anything remotely positive about the cancer journey. But if there is anything we can grasp to somehow improve our own lives it is the universal strength and determination that is demonstrated by cancer victims. Burdened with a grim diagnosis and punishing treatment that they endure alone, the attitude they take day to day as they focus on surviving can be an inspiration. Here are a few ways a cancer diagnosis changes you.
1. Survivors appreciate the little things. Having to come to grips with possibly dying before your time, you appreciate every additional moment you are given. This is not just a live-in-the-moment mantra but deeply felt. Seeing each day as a gift, survivors pull every ounce of enjoyment from each moment. For those of us nearest to them, the strength, determination, and optimism of survivors rubs off on us, and hopefully we also learn to appreciate life just a bit more.
2. The bond between survivors. No one who is not living through cancer can know what it is really like. Only those who have experienced the fear that rocks the core of your existence when you hear the words “you have cancer” know first-hand. Survivors are naturally attracted to and easily bond with one another, having been through a shared experience. It’s an exclusive brotherhood and sisterhood of sharing pain and finding strength.
3. Emotions are turned up a notch. It is not unheard of to listen to a song on the radio that for no particular reason brings a tear to your eye. Something in the harmony or the words rings true in a way that would have gone unnoticed before the cancer journey. The smile on a child’s face, a hug from your spouse, a silly greeting card on the rack, and the stars on a clear night are all more poignant, more significant, and more deeply felt. Emotions run on overdrive and little things are not taken for granted.
4. Helping others realize there is hope. Those close to us suffer the frustration of being unable to make things better or somehow reduce the suffering. In an interesting twist, it is often the patient who ends up doing most of the comforting. Their example of strength and resilience helps not only themselves but each of us to survive. In their hope we may find hope for ourselves.
For cancer victims, the focus is clear and simple: surviving. We all fear developing cancer, but perhaps we can learn from survivors to focus instead on something we all love: living a good life, caring for those around us, appreciating each moment, and taking nothing for granted. We owe it to each other.
Dave Bernard is not yet retired but has begun his due diligence to plan for a satisfying retirement. With a focus on the non-financial aspects of retiring, he shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement–Only the Beginning.