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Gifts and Grief From Cancer


I was told that I have survivors' guilt after seeing a friend while she was actively dying from cancer, but I actually see that day as a gift.

cartoon drawing of blogger and cancer survivor, Doris Cardwell

Many years ago, I recall sitting in the living room of a woman, younger than myself, who was dying from cancer. She was a young mom with three young children and her reality was heart breaking. I had stopped by that day to drop off some practical items. Another cancer survivor was there when I arrived, it was a scene I will never forget.

This young mother was in the living room floor on the phone with her nurse. It was clear she was in pain and asking for help. Also present were her mother and children. The air left my lungs as I sat down and observed the scene. Her oldest son was a good student, articulate and smart. His eyes were big as pancakes as he watched his mother suffer. She was clearly nearing her end on this earth. Her mother was visibly shaken but trying to be a good hostess and chat with her visitor. My mind, overloaded with grief, couldn'tcomprehend what I was hearing.

The other visitor was talking about how her faith had gotten her through her cancer journey. She was loudly proclaiming how she had been blessed and healed and delivered from cancer. Dumbfounded, I couldn't find words to say what I was feeling. As I watched my friend on the floor, who was wasting away and in great distress, I couldn't speak to what I had walked into. Her youngest two children were playing in the corner. Her oldest was fervently praying out loud for a miracle to save his mom. I sat there praying for this person to stop talking, but found myself unable to speak.

That scene is one that I have seen replayed more than I want to admit. Almost as many times as I have been told I have survivors' guilt when I talk about these things.

In my heart, I believe it is not guilt at all. I believe it is a gift I was given that day in the living room of a dying friend.

Let me unwrap that with you. What I saw that day with my eyes, were both realities of cancer. One person surviving and one person who was not going to make it. Those are both outcomes that we all see often. But what I saw with my heart was another story.

With my heart, I saw a need for awareness — an awareness that while both situations were true, only one should have been our focus that day.

I am not implying we shouldn't share. I am saying that we need to be sensitive to those around us. That day left an indelible mark on my soul. A desire to stop filling space with words and instead fill it with presence and care. If you knew me, you would understand how transformational that moment has been. I am a person who troubleshoots, problem solves and one that sometimes people look to for answers. Learning how to, instead, sit with people and offer comfort by being present has not been easy. I had to learn that cancer creates situations that often can't be problem solved.
Having cancer has brought many changes in my life. Another one of those changes has been learning to be open with my feelings. To realize that what one person labels as guilt, I can see as a gift, and that is okay. One doesn't change the other. It has also taught me to be more careful with my words. To not be quick to label emotions or dismiss the emotions of another with a comment instead of a taking the time to ask a question.

While cancer has given me these gifts, it has also given me sometimes immense amounts of grief. Grief in knowing what someone is going through. Grief in the many people I have gotten to know along the way who have entered their eternal rest. Voices that I still hear in my heart and miss being able to see face to face. I have had to learn that both are true, and you don't have to choose to feel one or the other.

It may be hard to understand how gifts can come from such an unwelcome visitor, but my experience with cancer has done that. I can't say I wouldn't have learned these lessons in an easier way, yet I am thankful I have learned them. Gifts and grief can both be teachers and can both occupy the same space.

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