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Cancer's Silver Lining

BY DON VAUGHAN
PUBLISHED TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2009
Surviving cancer is seldom easy. Treatment can be painful, debilitating, emotionally draining, and financially taxing. And yet, despite it all, a surprising number of cancer survivors report finding a “silver lining” in their cancer experience.

Patricia Mumby, RN, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Loyola University Chicago and director of psychosocial oncology for the department of psychaitry at Loyola Medical Center, agrees that cancer can be life-altering.

“I think many of us often take life for granted, and a ­diagnosis, such as cancer, can really make people look at their life and ask, ‘Am I living my life in a way that is most fulfilling to me?’ ” she explains. “They wonder, ‘Are there things I can change or improve?’ ”

After cancer, Lake found a much greater focus on his writing and his relationship with his 11-year-old daughter, whom he now spends more time with. “It’s easy to get caught up in both the ‘business’ and ‘busy-ness’ of life,” he says. “Adding a meaningful purpose requires sacrifices.”

"It's always better if your suffering has some meaning to it. So if you perceive that it's teaching you something or changing you in some positive way, there is a reason to keep going."

Catherine Calame of Bayport, New York, was in a bad marriage when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2002 at age 36. Then she learned that her husband was having an affair. As Calame completed her treatments, she entered counseling, where she discovered the strength to end her marriage and move forward.

“My ‘aha’ moment came when I was visiting a friend, and I just looked at her and said, ‘I’m done.’ There was no turning back,” she reports. “From cancer, I learned to take life one day at a time.”

Calame says she could focus more clearly on her personal goals, which included getting a full-time job and negotiating her divorce. “I now have the best life I could ever have hoped for,” she says.

On the other side of the coin, cancer can also help bring families closer together. Cindy Hecht was 45 and a divorced mom raising two daughters when she was diagnosed with aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma in December 2006. Hecht’s oldest daughter, Carolyn Suna, 14 at the time, immediately stepped in to care for both her mother and her then 9-year-old sister, Lauren. 

“We have a deep understanding and appreciation for each other that we might not have had during these ‘hot-button years’ for mothers and daughters,” says Hecht. “I think Carolyn also learned a lot about the power of community as she watched our town and her friends’ parents jump in and help.”

Carolyn, now 17, says she learned that her mother is “one tough lady.” Even when she was bald or vomiting as a result of her therapy, Carolyn recalls that her mother always tried to pretend that everything was fine. 

Not everyone will find a silver lining in their cancer experience, of course. For some, it will be the most agonizing experience of their lives and not easily traversed. But Tedeschi says that patients can increase their chances of finding something positive by avoiding fearful thinking.

“Some people are just blown away emotionally, with a lot of worry, fear, and anger,” Tedeschi explains. “They have to somehow make the transition to thinking about their experience in a calmer, more deliberate way, so that they can see how it may be changing them. One way is to talk with someone who has already gone through a similar experience, or by joining a cancer support group.”

For Judy King of Pompano Beach, Florida, cancer brought a spiritual awakening. While receiving chemotherapy following her breast cancer diagnosis at age 35 in March 1994, King was casually examining a small blister on her foot when she was struck by the unique healing ability of the body.  

King, who had been raised an agnostic, says this simple, yet profound realization helped transform her from an agnostic to believing in God.

“This transition gave me the ability to quit worrying about myself and my treatments and actually ‘let go and let God,’ ” King says. “When my friends ask me to tell them something positive about my cancer, I tell them that because of it, I found God, and I also got a few months’ reprieve from shaving my legs.”

Some survivors find their mission in life after cancer when they decide to become advocates for their fellow cancer patients. While in the hospital with a rare and aggressive form of cervical cancer in April 2008, 36-year-old Sarah Fisher of Phoenix, Arizona, became friends with her hospital roommate, Deborah, who had advanced cancer.

After Deborah’s death in early 2009, Fisher wanted to honor her late friend. So she founded Deb’s Day, a nonprofit organization that enlists salons and beauticians to provide personal care free of charge to seriously ill hospital patients.

“I believe my fight with cancer was actually a good cause, for without it I never would have met Deborah or founded Deb’s Day,” Fisher says. 

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