Cancer Is A Disease – Not A Spiritual Condition



This is a recent tweet from @boingboing journalist, Xeni

Cancer does not automatically make you empathetic to other patients or a nice person. It’s a disease, not a spiritual condition.

Would you agree?

Some of you will be nodding your head in agreement at the second sentence; while others will shake theirs in sadness.

Which of you is right? Answer: You both are.

For some, cancer is a spiritual test and reawakening. There are many blogs out there to which testify to this. For another equally vocal group, it is not a blessing or a gift. I know this discussion can bring forth some very differing views, and I want to say again, that whatever works for you is perfectly fine – just don’t expect everyone else to share your point of view.

Back to the first part of Xeni’s tweet. I have long believed that people don’t fundamentally change. If you are a positive person who looks for the silver lining in every challenge, then this is the attitude you will take with you to the experience of cancer. If this is not naturally your personality, then not only are you going to find it tough to deal with cancer, but you will also have to take on board the insidious expectation that you are expected to do so with a brave smile on your face and positive affirmations on your lips. This is what Carolyn Thomas, writing from the perspective of a heart attack survivor, calls the not-so-subtle expectation that good patients will somehow take the lemons that life curveballs at them and make deliciously noble lemonade.”

Jessie Gruman,  founder of the Center for Advancing Health, and a survivor of four cancer-related diagnoses, has written about how the belief that we are somehow ennobled by illness can add to the burden of those who are ill.

 I am already doing the best I can to get better. To add to these challenges the expectation that the experience of illness will re-order my priorities and make me wiser (or gentler or kinder or more generous) burdens me further. Not only has my body failed, but I might now also fail as a person.

I am not denying that some people do find a renewed sense of purpose after cancer, but it is this implicit expectation that we must turn our experience of cancer into something meaningful that is an added burden on an already difficult illness. Nor am I disavowing that the experience of cancer makes some people more compassionate and empathetic; but I would argue that these qualities were either already formed or lying dormant ready to be awakened by cancer.  And while I can point to the many who go on to do advocacy work, volunteer as a peer supporter, and educate others about cancer in the hope of making a change for the better in the lives of cancer patients and their families, I can equally point to those who have wanted to put the experience behind them and close the door firmly on any reminders (the question of whether we can truly ever put cancer behind us is addressed in an earlier post).

The expectation that journalist Emma Keller, having had breast cancer herself, should not have attacked Lisa Adams in her newspaper column, arises from this mistaken belief that cancer makes you a better person. It doesn’t. At the end of the day, people are people. Some of us will find meaning in our cancer experience, some of us will not.  Some of us will be motivated to give more of our time to help others with cancer, while others among us will just want to move on and forget about the whole experience, as Emma Keller has said she wanted to do. We are all individual in our ways of dealing with a cancer diagnosis, its treatment, and how we deal with its aftermath.

Do you agree with my post today? I am open to everyone’s views on this topic. Perhaps cancer did change you in some fundamental way. Please feel free to share your story, whatever it may be.