What I’ve Learned About Having Cancer


After reflecting on my own experience and speaking to others who also had cancer, here are 12 things I’ve learned about dealing with the disease.

chemo chair in hospital

"Cancer teaches us to grow emotionally, psychologically and spiritually," Chester Freeman said.

Life is not fair, and cancer certainly proves that point when someone who has taken excellent care of themselves in all ways is diagnosed with cancer. Genetics can play a big factor in this situation.

What I have learned is that the best way to deal with cancer is to learn from it just as we learn from our own life experiences, good or bad. Cancer teaches us to grow emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

There are 12 things that I have learned from talking with six friends who are currently dealing with cancer.

  • I’ve learned a cancer diagnosis means you have to take responsibility for your feelings. When I was first diagnosed with inoperable cancer, I could not understand how that could happen. So I had to review my life and what I was doing to see if I could find the cause. Once I did, I felt depressed and angry. I had to learn to deal with those feelings so I could focus on the plan of treatment. And like most people, I read up on my cancer and tried to learn as much as possible. I have also learned that some of my male friends ignore early signs of cancer until they discover it is progressing quickly into stage 3 or 4 before they see an oncologist. Us men tend to not want to deal with anything that affects us, and especially our private parts. Too many of us wait too long before seeking help.
  • I’ve learned cancer treatments have consequences and side effects. Most of us are familiar with the standard ones such as hair loss, weight loss and taste bud changes, but others are unusual, affecting only some individuals. Again, I have learned from my friends with prostate cancer that developing breasts and having their penis reduced in size from something they were proud of to something they are now ashamed of hurt them on many different levels. It damaged their self-image and their sense of masculinity. So deep was the emotional and psychological stress of these changes that it affected their ability to perform sexually. It was very difficult, and only a sensitive and caring spouse could deal with this intimate issue. It demands no less compassion, understanding and patience than what women need following a radical mastectomy. These are the really hard parts of cancer that require great strength and courage. Not everyone is comfortable talking about this delicate subject. Counseling is often needed.
  • I’ve learned getting a second opinion is a good thing to obtain. Sometimes a third opinion is warranted. We can’t expect every doctor to know everything about every cancer type, so you must read and learn about the latest advances regarding your cancer diagnosis for yourself. Seek out the most knowledgeable doctor that treats your cancer type. Doctors do make mistakes during surgery, and I have seen this firsthand with devastating results that affected a friend’s life. As a result, he had to rethink how he lived and worked within his limitations.
  • I’ve learned that participating in a clinical study is a good thing to do. Many studies are based on genetic markers, and that is very important. The study may not benefit you directly, but it will certainly help others. We are all in this together and unless others participated before us, we would not have the knowledge that we have today. And who knows, maybe you will be one of the individuals who actually benefits from the study! Breakthroughs in cancer are happening every day, so we must keep our eyes and ears open to scientific discoveries.
  • I’ve learned that cancer can take a lot away from an individual, but it can also open a person up to life. We all know the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Cancer teaches us to appreciate all the little things that we often ignore, such as the beauty of a flower opening before our eyes, the joy of being with a close friend, the pleasure of a conversation with a stranger who enriches your life. We learn to let go of some of the family drama that we once experienced and focus on loving wholeheartedly.
  • I’ve learned cancer can open us up to new possibilities. If you are lucky enough to have a full remission, then you have a new lease on life. You have time to do the things that you want and to complete your bucket list. If you have come to the end and know that there is a limited time left for you, then you can take that opportunity to grow spiritually and be at peace, rather than full of regret and anger. When doctors informed a friend they could offer nothing more, she decided to stop all treatment and go home to die gracefully. Before she left Hope Lodge, she told me she was at peace with her decision and wanted to spend the remaining days enjoying life with her husband and daughters. It takes great strength and courage to reach that point of acceptance.
  • I’ve learned most people are stronger than they think they are. You never know how far you can go until you start. And when the going gets tough, I have learned that encouragement from a stranger in a similar situation can be just as powerful as it is from a friend or relative. There was a young woman who was at the end of her rope and was ready to give up, when a friend of mine reached out to her and changed the entire course of her life. With his support, she fought through the rough treatment and made a full recovery so she could enjoy the horses that she loved. Sometimes we have to reach the breaking point before we push onward and let mindfulness meditation carry us through.
  • I’ve learned diet is a big factor in the healing of cancer. Eating the right, healthy foods can make a big difference. Paying attention to the antioxidants, anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables may extend our lives. Organic and non-GMO foods are the best. The old adage is “We are what we eat.” Let us be mindful of food and grateful that we can eat when others have difficulty swallowing.
  • I’ve learned that positive thinking makes a difference. If you believe you can make it through the cancer journey, then it is likely that you will. And for those who have some type of faith, it has been proven that the power of prayer is real and is a healing force. It can help you on your journey if you believe, and it does not matter what religious tradition you are coming from. Knowing that others who care about you are praying for you helps!
  • I’ve learned that regardless of how positive you are, there will be down days and horrible days, when you feel so bad you want to scream. This is when you seek out your friends and family to help you through. The support of a friend can make a big difference in your life, whether they are holding your hand, sitting in silence, sending an e-mail or a card in the mail, or talking on the phone. It is not so much what they say, but being present and connected that matters.
  • I’ve learned that laughter and music are healing therapies. These therapies are unconventional, but the evidence is empirical. Laughter actually opens up the brain waves to myriad possibilities of healing. Research has shown that music therapy works too! Today the Eastman School of Music offers Eastman Performing Arts Medicine Initiative, which brings music to hospitals to help patients as they struggle with their illnesses.
  • I’ve learned that we can all cope after surgery, regardless of how it changes us. I have a friend who just had surgery on his jaw and throat. Fortunately, he does not show any outward signs of the surgery. His voice has changed, however, and it has affected how he sees himself and how he sings. He is planning on having two more surgeries to try to restore some of his voice, but he will not be able to capture how he sounded before. Learning to cope with these changes takes courage and strength. He continues to sing, and I feel in that process he is growing into an acceptance. Hopefully the surgeries will help him feel better and sing more strongly too.

Of all the things that I have learned, the most important are: having faith, having support and having willpower. With these things, I feel that you can make it through your treatment program. Faith gives us strength in body, mind and spirit; support gives us courage to face the radiation and chemotherapy treatments; and willpower gives us hope and endurance to get through it. As the rock band Sly and the Family Stone sang,” You Can Make It If You Try!”

This post was written and submitted by Chester Freeman. The article reflects the views of Chester Freeman and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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