Debbie’s discovery of cancer’s gifts
It is such a joy to host today’s guest author, Debbie Woodbury, founder of Where We Go Now, an online community for cancer survivors. Our paths crossed on twitter when I discovered a kindred spirit in Debbie and as you read on through her post, you will see just why.
My Hard Fought Discovery of Cancer’s Gifts
At no time during my cancer journey did I ever ask the question, “Why me?” My fifty years of life “BC” (before cancer) perhaps created a fatalist, but it didn’t ring true to me to even pose the question. With five BC years of miscarriages and infertility under my belt, I knew life could be cruel. Knowing that, how could I feign surprise when evidence of that fact arose again?
I thus approached my cancer journey as an experienced traveler down life’s sometimes bumpy path. In my cancer numbness, it must have been infertility’s muscle memory carrying me through each day, doing what needed to be done, and barely managing fear. Throughout our years in the infertility trenches, however, we had a secret weapon. The certainty of the goal – the gift of giving birth to a child – was the focus that made all the rest of it possible.
Cancer didn’t play fair, however, because it presented no such focus. I submitted to endless testing, surgeries, and long disability periods, but I could find no goal to hang onto inside cancer’s swirling tornado. Of course, I could have focused on the fact that I wasn’t going to die, but I was too overwhelmed by living.
After my surgery I was lucky to be cured of my non-invasive breast cancer, but I couldn’t for the life of me picture myself healed. My plastic surgeon was confounded. I remember the look he gave me when I asked him what we were going for with my reconstruction. He obviously saw a work in progress, but I saw only damage. And, if I couldn’t picture a healed body, I certainly couldn’t picture a healed psyche. Where was I going now after cancer treatment? What was I supposed to get out of all this suffering?
Overwhelmed by cancer’s losses – isolation, fear, body image issues, lack of control, mortality, my family’s suffering – kept me in a very bad place. Weekly oncology therapy sessions were the only way I managed to put one foot in front of the other.
And then, something amazing happened. About nine months after my mastectomy, I was startled to realize I was keeping a tally in my head of the changes cancer was bringing me. Although I was excruciatingly aware of the losses, I was begrudgingly recognizing gifts. When I could ignore the gifts no longer, I decided to write them down side by side with the losses.
The losses were obvious, but there were a surprising number of gifts. Introspection, discovering yoga and meditation, making new friends, becoming aware of the present moment, learning to say “yes” to myself, and writing – just to name a few.
The missing goal – the gifts of cancer – was staring me right in the face. Eventually, my Gifts and Losses list gave birth to a website. I created WhereWeGoNow.com as a community for people who want to talk about life beyond cancer, focusing of course on cancer’s many gifts. With every entry to my Gifts and Losses and Community Gifts and Losses lists, and every blog post I write, I am still amazed at the richness of lives lived beyond cancer.
When I started this journey, I never would have believed that cancer came bearing gifts. There was no vision of a perfect pink or blue bundle to pull me forward. But time, distance and therapy helped me recognize the truism of infertility in the reality of cancer. I would never want to go through infertility again, but I could never trade the process which brought me my children.
I now know the same about cancer. I would never, never want to go through cancer again, and I will never say cancer itself is a gift. The Gifts and Losses list taught me, however, that I could not trade the process which brought me cancer’s gifts. It is exactly because of those gifts that I now understand Survival > Existence.
Join in the discussion at wherewegonow.com
Follow Debbie at http://twitter.com/DebbieWWGN
My own experience with breast cancer helped me change my outlook towards life – my priorities have all changed for the better so I agree with Debbie, that cancer does bring us gifts if we are open to them.
It took me some time to realize that cancer could bring new gifts into my life – now I don’t take life for granted anymore and I live in the moment.
I can honestly say, that while it was horrendous going through treatment for cancer, my life is fuller and richer now as a result. Thanks for a great post Debbie.
I often wonder if my life would have been as rich as it is today if I hadn’t traveled on this path of cancer.
It may sound like a cliché to call my breast cancer a blessing in disguise but I have learned to see it that way.
I am dying of cancer and I fail to see any gift in this
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Viktor Frankl
Thanks for the reminder Debbie that blessings can indeed come out of life’s challenges if you choose to look for them.
Cancer taught me who my true friends are. I also realized that my job was toxic to my health and I was lucky enough to be able to give myself the gift of leaving it and choosing to embark on another career.
Cancer helped me discover things in myself that I never thought I had – like courage and patience.
Cancer brought me the gift of time for self-nurturing, for yoga, for meditation, reflection and hope and I try to bring that gift with me now that I am no longer in treatment.
Sorry to disagree but there is no blessing in cancer. It is a cruel disease which took my beloved wife from me.
I agree with those who say there is no blessing in cancer – cancer sucks. End of.
I am sorry to read the comments of those who say there is no blessing in cancer – there is always a blessing if you are open to it. Dying of Cancer.
I am a breast cancer survivor and I think of my cancer as a blessing in disguise – it allowed me to explore my creative side and find a whole new career.
I do think we need to draw a distinction here. When your cancer is in remission it is so much easier to look back and see the blessings but believe me, as I know from experience, when you have a mets recurrence, the blessing is much harder to find. Having said that, while i wouldn’t call my cancer a gift, I am open to the blessings that surround me – the love and support of family and friends – the beauty of nature – for the time that i have left. Life is more precious and beautiful as it slips away from me.
life always gives us gifts, no matter what, cancer just gives us laser clarity to see them and enjoy them. Good stuff!
Thank you all for taking the time to comment on Debbie’s post today. I respect all your viewpoints very much. Just as there is no such thing as one version of cancer, there is no one way to experience cancer. Emotions run the gamut of anger, gratefulness, sadness, depression, hope and all are valid reactions. Thank you again for sharing your viewpoints. Marie
Debbie you have had more to experience than myself with having the disappointment of miscarriages plus the experience with beast cancer. I have the fortune to survived the treatments as well as continue to be transformed into a new “post cancer” survivor. Cancer or not, life is bumpy it is all in what we do with the cards we have been dealt. Blessings to you today and thanks for taking the time to share.
Fantastic post, Debbie! I love the “survival > existence” line.
Debbie – thank you for this post focusing on the gifts and the positive experiences – it should be inspirational to those either newly diagnosed who cannot yet see how they will get through the experience, to those further along in their journey who may still be stuck on the negative aspects of their condition. I think we all have times when we take the good in our lives for granted, and sometimes it does take a devastating and shocking diagnosis like cancer to make us fully appreciate all of the positives. Thank you for sharing!
I love this post and the honesty with which you wrote it. I agree in that I can’t sit here and tell you that cancer was a gift because it didn’t always feel that way. When I got the call at only 30 years old that I had breast cancer, when I sat crying on the floor of my shower, holding my hair in my hands, or when I first saw the bright red angry post-matectomy scars, I did not feel grateful. All I felt was angry and depressed (It sounds like you’ve been there too). I hated cancer. I hated my life. I hated that I could not escape cancer or my life.
Time has given me the gift of perspective and I now see cancer as the cosmic 2×4 I needed to change the way I live. A catalyst that helped me to stop working 80 hour weeks, to stop obsessing about trying to control everyone and everything around me, and most importantly to stop beating myself up for my imperfections.
I can’t say whether I would feel this way if I was dying of cancer. But, I do know that having cancer has taught me how to live.
Thank you again and I look forward to checking out your blog and following your journey!
Cancer isn’t the gift nor does it give you any blessings – you CHOOSE to see the glass half full or half empty. You CHOOSE to focus on the pain and anger OR you choose to focus on the love of family and friends, the light that comes through your window, the sun on your face… You have always had the choice and as long as you are alive you have the choice in every moment. I am in remission and it took awhile to get to that place but I really like it there.
I am sitting here feeling sorry for myself in a chemo induced funk – but reading this post has given me a new perspective – thank you!
Thank you all for your thoughtful and honest comments. I’ll say it again: cancer itself is not a gift. Terri was right about my days with depression and anger, and there are still days like that today. But once again, in reading all of your comments, I recognized the gift of coming together with other cancer survivors and sharing our stories. So, thank you again for your support and kind words, even those in disagreement. It means the world to me.
Survival > Existence, Debbie
What a great post! I could identify with all of what you said, except that I have not gone through the heartache of infertility. I’m sure that experience changed your whole perspective on the ensuing cancer diagnosis.
Like you, it took me a bit of time to realize some benefits from the cancer experience. While you discovered yoga, I discovered personal trainers and smoothies through my cancer sojourns. I found new friends from support groups–online and offline. I rediscovered journaling as a therapeutic exercise. And I learned more to appreciate life and all it has to offer. Public speaking was another gift I received, something I never would have volunteered to do before cancer entered my life. And that’s just a few from my list of silver linings.
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. It deeply resonated with me.
Wonderful post, Debbie. It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain” (Khalil Gibran). I’ve had 2 diagnoses of leukemia in the past 6 1/2 years…I’ve been through chemo, radioactive iodine, total body radiation and a stem cell transplant. While I will never feel grateful for my cancer diagnoses, I will always be thankful for the perspective they gave me. At 33, I feel wise beyond my years.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading your blog!
I think this is a wonderful resource for those who are able to put cancer in the rear-view mirror. Unfortunately there are many of us who cannot and never will. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy our lives nor live them to the fullest and to best of our abilities. It just means that we reserve our rights to be angry when we need to be, speak out when we need to, and do so knowing that the anger is a justifiable and very real emotion that shouldn’t be subjugated. For me, I cannot put the words “cancer” and “gifts” in the same sentence. It just doesn’t ring true. Although having cancer has brought me new community, and a feeling for the “now” amongst other things, I could never class these as “gifts”, more adaptations to circumstance.
You’ve phrased it so well. It’s the process that is the gift, but then again, it’s hard to separate the gift from the giver.
I’m so glad to have found your site through your blog here on Marie’s, and look forward to getting to know you.
Cancer is not a gift. People I’ve met, things I’ve learned, the community I’ve become a part of, these things are acquisitions, ok gifts, resulting from cancer. But cancer itself is not a gift.That important distinction must be made over and over. In my opinion, not doing so diminishes the lives of those lost.
I completely agree with you Nancy. I dedicated a special section of WhereWeGoNow.com to People We Remember. For me, recognizing the gifts of cancer in my own life in no way diminishes the significance of its losses. I can only speak for myself when I say that, in order to begin healing (and the process continues to this day, believe me), I had to honestly admit and appreciate the positives as well as the negatives. All the best to you. Debbie
I will never forget the words of the hospital chaplin on the morning of my mastectomy–He told my family and I that “cancer is a gift.” I struggled with this statement all through my treatment (surgery, chemo and radiation.) It was at a supper celebrating the end of treatment that I came to peace with the statement. I had shared with my pastor that I really struggled with what the hospital chaplin had stated. He quickly agreed with me and said, “Kim, cancer isn’t a gift. The gift is when you see the blessings in the journey!”
Thank you for sharing this delightful and encouraging post!
My mother tongue is not english so forgive my mistakes.
I also am a cancer survivor! Three years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.Two surgeries, chemo and radiotherapy, I had it all but never ocurred to me the question “Why me?” instead I thought “Why Not me?”. When the numbers are growing so much the chances of not having cancer are becoming lower. I had 3 children, I breast fed them all, no one in my family ever had breast cancer but there it was. I cried twice and I decided that I was not going to be a victim. I think that that state of mind helped me along the journey as well as the support of my whole family. I agree with Debbie about the gifts of my cancer. I am more at peace with myself, I´m more aware of other people. Now I can help others that are going through all the treatments, fears, doubts, because I have been there.
I hope I will not have a recurrence but if it comes I´ll do whatever I can to fight it! Life is too good to give up. I want to grow old and get to see some grandchildren.
I think you said it beautifully, Maria. Thank you for sharing your story and determination. I agree that one of the best gifts of cancer is the opportunity to give back to others who are going through it. Debbie
I agree, cancer comes with positive surprises. Would rather just have the good, but some of it wouldn’t be possible without #$!@ cancer because it is cancer that makes you realize and reach for the good stuff. I can relate to you on the infertility front too, Debbie. Can relate to that goal of there hopefully being a baby in the end, Finally getting pregnant, then devastating loss after loss. If you are lucky enough to have a child – and I did get one beautiful daughter out of it – then you had light and reward at the end of the tunnel. The gifts tied to the c journey are the same kinda thing.
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I was recently diagnosed with non invasive breast cancer.
I had only had a lump 2 days, went to the hospital and the next thing I know is that the doctor was talking about chemo and I was being ushered into The Mcmillan part of the hospital .
To say I was traumertised would be an understatement but as the weeks have gone by, I have calmed down .
I think myself very lucky that although I will need a mastectomy , hopefully no other treatment will be necassary as the cancer is non invasive.
Whilst I certainly don’t think of cancer as a gift , I can see that going through it makes you a very strong person and the people that you speak to along the road to recovery enrich your life and the support that you get from these people is the true gift of this awful illness.
The only way that I can get through this is by reading positive articles like this one and to know that I am by know means alone.
I would like to send my love to all the people above who are dying from this illness, my heart goes out to you all.
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