Cancer as a gift? No, thank you.

I walked beside my husband, Gary, with late stage prostate cancer for several years longer than the professionals originally projected. Ten burbling, courage-filled, memory-making, oddly-sweet years. The experience taught us to notice life, and all the simple pleasures we hadn’t meant to take for granted, and all the astonishing people who surrounded us in love.

Marlys Johnson

There are numerous folks dealing with cancer who have suggested it is a gift … and countless others who would never refer to it as any such thing. “Would you re-gift it?” someone once asked sarcastically.

But consider this thought from one of my cancer-fighting friends who alludes not so much to the disease, but to the possibilities provided by the challenges: “It was an opportunity to grow, to learn, and to feel love and support like you have never known, which is a gift.”

I recently emailed several cancer ‘experts’—people who have warriored through this disease—with a few pertinent questions: What helped you manage the hard stuff? What advice would you share with others? What did you learn?

First breathe

“First, breathe,” wrote a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer when her two children were young. “Life feels really out of control with a new diagnosis. There is so much to learn, so many specialists to meet, and so many feelings to process. Seek out as many opinions as you need, and then, once you have a plan of action, things usually start to feel a little calmer.”

“Make time for each other. Listen to each other,” submitted a cancer caregiver. “Listen to the patient – to what he or she wants.”

Learn to advocate

“Know your enemy,” wrote a caregiver. “Study the disease and become a personal advocate for the person in your care. Don’t assume doctors always know best.”

“Put together a medical team that you feel comfortable with,” submitted a cancer patient. “This makes all the difference. I ended up changing my primary care physician. After the cancer diagnosis he seemed cold and unfeeling.”

Let people love on you

My tattered and stained Caregiver Super Hero cape dragged in the mud for entirely too long. Because I didn’t want to bother anyone. Because I could do it all myself. It was my daughter who taught me that I needed to accept the help of others. “Mom,” she said in a lecturing tone, “people want to help. You need to let them.”

“Learn to let others do things for you,” said a mom with young children at the time of her diagnosis. “They truly want to, and it can allow you time to relax and enjoy the people and activities you love.”

“Don’t isolate yourself,” wrote a caregiver. “Level with friends and relatives about your needs. Understand that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”

“Let people take care of you,” wrote the mom of a teenager with cancer. “Don’t feel guilty about not being able to give back. Your time will come.”

Practice good self-care

“I would highly recommend getting out and getting some exercise,” wrote a cancer caregiver and the mom of two young children. My friend took thirty minutes several times a week to run alone. “It helped clear my head and allowed me a small window of time that I was not taking care of someone else.”

“Try to enjoy something every day,” wrote a cancer survivor. “This is not a platitude. There may be days when you don’t feel well, when you feel sorry for yourself, or you’re just mad that this is happening to you. But maybe you can find some little thing that gives you joy: a random ice cream cone, calling a friend, or the first buds of spring.”

Family, friends, faith

When I asked what helped the most, the same three words cropped up over and over. Family. Friends. Faith.


“I think if we can rest in the fact that we are not alone in this whatever-it-is trial, that God is totally and fully aware of what is going on with us,” submitted a young man dealing with multiple adversities. “Take pause to listen to God, to allow Him to guide you.”

“Love is so important, bigger than the trials,” wrote a friend with a devastating diagnosis. “Loving and being loved – it is healing, it is supportive, it is awesome.”


It isn’t a life of ease that hones bravery in us, that tests our strength, that lets us know what we’re made of. It takes refining. And refining can be painful, overwhelming, devastating, heart-breaking, loss-filled.

But refining can be beauty-making and strength-producing and courage-generating, if we allow it. And to that end, adversity can be a gift.

2 thoughts on “Cancer as a gift? No, thank you.

  1. You’ve hit on the key, Carolyn: “Sometimes you have to find the gift,” which suggests you’re looking for something, and that “something” is a positive something. Thanks for the TED talks link … I’ll be sure to check it out!

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