The Upside of Cancer
Understand the seven blessings that those facing cancer experience.
By Chris Lawrence
Everybody talks about the downsides of having cancer—the fear, the unending medical appointments, the grueling treatment, not to mention the threat to life itself. But what about the upside? Could it be possible to experience anything good in such a difficult position?
An upside is a “positive aspect” of an experience. And as unthinkable as it may seem, there exist some positives with something as negative and challenging as cancer.
Cancer survivors—a category that includes anyone from initial diagnosis, treatment, post treatment or at the end of life—often experience a radical change in perspective, one that can be incredibly positive if allowed. It’s as if we tune into a different frequency than those around them—a melody only those who have endured this suffering can hear.
This is what happened to me as I faced stage IV cancer (you can read my story here). As difficult as the journey has been, it radically changed my perspective in some positive ways. And as I have met others facing cancer, I have heard some of the same thoughts.
Based on my own experience and what I have observed with others, here are seven blessings—or upsides—that many cancer survivors experience:
1. Gratitude. Survivors often share a profound sense of gratitude. When life is threatened, life becomes viewed as a gift, not something owed. A survivor is quick to recognize blessings in life, such as family, friends, or unique experiences, and not take them for granted. Entitlement and petty grievances melt away in the sunshine of thankfulness. They experience a shift in thinking and see life, even with all its thistles and thorns, revealed as what it is: a gift.
2. Perspective. Time is short, and life won’t go on forever. While we all may “know” this fact, people facing cancer comprehend life’s brevity at a greater depth than most. Having this perspective provides a definite upside. We all like to think we are going to live forever, and we generally live as if that is true. But we won’t. Cancer survivors understand this truth and this knowledge often proves a positive, as it helps reinforce and refine priorities that cause them to invest time and energy into the people and activities that matter most. “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”1
3. Empathy. Because those with cancer have been through incredible hardship—or are currently going through it—when they encounter others suffering physically or emotionally, even if not directly related to cancer, they know the struggles and anguish which suffering can bring, and as a result they have wells of compassion from which to draw. It’s a compassion that far exceeds sentimentality and often leads to action. As Nelson Mandela said, “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other.”
4. Courage. Cancer survivors are among the most courageous of people. As we know, courage is not necessarily conquering fear, but mustering the will to face it. Cancer survivors must constantly confront fear. The amount of fortitude needed to face the gauntlet of appointments, scans or chemo treatments is hard to fathom. Persevering amidst hardships has the potential to develop a rare sense of grit and inner strength. When survivors face other difficulties in life, they are often less overwhelmed by these problems than the average person. Survivors are some of the most courageous people you know!
5. Passion. As the saying goes, “death is the smelling salts of life.” When a life is threatened, and the body changes, survivors are given the opportunity to reflect on what their true identity is. Because cancer strips away the illusion of immortality, our deepest values often come into brilliant focus. Even a life-threatening disease cannot take away or diminish the survivor’s passions—whether it’s family, helping others, or experiencing beauty in nature. The body may change, but the soul does not. Life may be different than expected or shorter than hoped for, but nothing can change who God has made the person to be, including the passions held most dearly. This reawakening of passion is a definite upside.
6. Love. Survivors experience love in powerful ways. Cancer brings an urgency to relationships with friends and family that often changes them for the better. Survivors quickly realize the error of taking loved ones for granted, as well as the wisdom of reconciling old grudges. When cancer threatens a person’s life, the questions move beyond, “What do I love most?” to “Who do I love the most?” As a result, this upside often motivates them ask inquire how they can express their love more intentionally. They may ask questions like, “How can I be a better husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, grandfather, grandmother, friend?” Loving well is a gift that many survivors unwrap and enjoy to the fullest.
7. Faith. Facing cancer means facing a crisis. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” said war correspondent Ernie Pyle2. Many cancer survivors explore what they believe spiritually and are open to knowing God, perhaps more than ever before. Studies have often shown that survivors pray more often than the average person3 and many of them experience a profound sense of hope through their faith4. The crisis of cancer often prompts people to explore what they believe spiritually and evaluate where they find hope. It’s a great time to draw close to God, and to lock into the hope that he provides.
As these seven points illustrate, there can be an upside to cancer.
At Hope Has Arrived, our mission is to help you find hope, strength and peace. If it was possible to know God and find hope through that relationship, would you want that? For more on what I mean, visit Knowing God Personally.
I would also like to invite you to walk The Pathway to Hope, a 7-day email series about how to find hope in the midst of cancer.
Note: We are not doctors and we cannot answer your medical questions. However, we welcome your questions about finding hope and knowing God.
Footnotes: (1) Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (2) This quote is attributed to several other people besides Pyle. (3) A survey by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that 69% of cancer survivors pray regularly about their health compared to 45% of people without cancer. (4) 93 percent of women with gynecological cancer said that their faith helped them experience hope. Roberts JA, Brown D, Elkins T, et al. Factors influencing views of patients with gynecological cancer about end-of-life decisions.