Learning to be a Kinder Person After Cancer


A cancer survivor and former military service member writes how he used to be short with people, demanded things be done his way and often made others feel little — that is until his cancer diagnosis. Here, he shares how his experience with cancer taught him to be kinder to others.

Sitting in a typical beige collage of a waiting room, across from me sat a middle-aged man scanning his phone not paying attention to a thing. Nothing about this seemed out of the ordinary but rather the mask he was wearing caught my attention. It had “Spread Kindness” splashed across it in inch-tall gold letters. Of course, it had a big heart in its middle to drive home the point in case the words escaped me.

It once again reminded me of my need to be kinder, gentler and gracious without prompting.

I smiled at how much I had changed. Years earlier, being a former military guy, I seldom cut myself any slack or for that matter anyone else. All too often I had been short with people. I had demanded things be done my way. Sometimes I had made someone feel little when I didn’t have to. Although I have changed, knowing my past sorry behavior, even today I remain vigilant to make certain I don’t backslide.

So, what led to my transformation from a hard-nosed get-it-done guy to a more kindhearted person? I suppose being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer so few survive it’s considered a death sentence, led to this. Spending close to two years needing round-the-clock care humbles a person. Multiple trips to the ER and unending weeks in the hospital drove home to me how dependent I am on other people.

But this change didn’t come easy for me. Knowing my life was in the crosshairs, I struggled amid my months of treatments and now years of follow-ups to be a patient patient. With so much going on, although people did their best, sometimes things slid sideways. Phone calls not returned. Lab results not read. Appointments not available. Seeing weary if not burnt-out caregivers. And a host of other things tested my patience. This led me to question whether my care was on track. I know I am not alone in having days like these.

On the flip side, caring for us cancer patients is tough even on the best of a best day. With our lives in the balance, we can be a wee-bit cranky at times. We face far too many unknowns. A pending decision on whether to sign up for a trial. Not understanding all that’s being done to us. Asking questions but getting slanted answers filled with medical jargon that don’t make sense. Dealing with a doctor who doesn’t get us, or we them. Too many chances for things to go in the ditch.

Amid this, I realized I needed to be kinder to others. This did not mean lowering my expectations but rather being more understanding when someone flubbed it.

Don’t get me wrong, being kind is not being weak or letting things fall where they may but rather it’s about understanding what it is to be human. It is treating others with respect and dignity. It is about being graceful in the face of adversity. It’s about being understanding, and yes, being patient. And it is about recognizing humans, including ourselves, are frailer and fail far more often than we care to admit.

Although I am thankful to be beyond the heat of day-to-day care now, my experiences have forever changed how I approach everyday problems these days. I now:

Look beyond the problem at hand

How big of a problem is it anyway? Often when something goes wrong when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we realize it’s not a game-ender. But rather it’s a time out, a huddle, picking up the pieces, and getting back in the game. Look beyond the problem at hand.

Try to understand someone’s effort

There is a big difference between someone who is in the game trying to get something done and another person whose heart isn’t in it. Sometimes figuring this out isn’t easy either. I now try hard to see the effort made even if it falls short. Rather than demanding more, I cheer them on letting them know I believe in them. Try to understand someone’s effort.

Consider someone’s attitude

I focus on someone’s attitude rather than the problem at hand. Are they exuding an upbeat spirit pushing to make things happen when everything seems to be going sideways? Are they in the game and playing at their best or even beyond it? Oftentimes this isn’t easy to figure out, so I err on the side of caution, giving them the benefit of the doubt. What harm does this cause? Consider someone’s attitude.

Give leeway when I can

There are many ways to get things done. If someone gets it done, what difference does it make how they did it? What matters is that they got it done. They kicked the field goal or made the basket. Give leeway when you can.

Being put through the cancer gauntlet forever changed me. It made me a kinder person, more caring, and gentler. Now in dealing with others I have learned to look beyond the problem, try to understand the effort, consider someone’s attitude, and to give leeway when I can. Post cancer I am a bit more at peace with everyone around me and I am most thankful to still be in the game.

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