Cancer's Silver Lining

Survivors share the positives of cancer.

Stan Goldberg of San Francisco was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 at age 57, and, like Smalley, felt compelled to help others after his recovery. Since becoming a bedside hospice volunteer, he has been present for the deaths of more than 250 adults and children, experiences that, he says, have helped him learn to live fully, regardless of how long it might be.  “When you are invited into the lives of people who are dying, there is an honesty in their words and behaviors that teaches you what it means to be authentically human.”

Cancer patients should never think of the disease’s potential silver lining as an all-or-nothing phenomenon, says Loyola’s Mumby. “People can be feeling the stress of the cancer at the same time that they are able to find something positive,” she says. “It’s often a matter of degree. But I think if people are able, at any point in the experience, to identify even a single positive, that, in and of itself, can be very empowering.”

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This positive perspective, what researchers call “post-traumatic growth,” affects survivors in a variety of ways. From experiencing a spiritual awakening to becoming aware of inner strength, the silver lining often leads to dramatic life changes.

“My life and well-being were both significantly improved by cancer,” says fantasy novelist Jay Lake of Portland, Oregon, who was diagnosed with early-stage colon cancer at age 43 in April 2008. “In many ways, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Richard G. Tedeschi, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, says Lake is among the estimated one-half to two-thirds of cancer survivors who come away from their experience with some kind of positive change.

Tedeschi, who has interviewed hundreds of trauma survivors, reports five common growth outcomes:

>  A deepened appreciation of life.

>  Enhanced relationships with others.

>  An appreciation for personal strength and endurance.

>  Setting out on new pathways or pursuing new interests and opportunities.

>  Spiritual growth and development.

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

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