Although dealing with cancer can be a lengthy and difficult experience, it can also have positive impacts on people’s lives. The women we spoke to reflected on these positive impacts and identified a variety of ways in which they felt their lives had actually been enriched by having to deal with serious illness. These included being more open about their emotional and practical needs, learning to ask for and accept help, learning to let others take more responsibility, reconsidering their priorities, living in the moment and appreciating small, everyday things. Thus, despite the challenges they faced, many women looked back on their experience in surprisingly positive ways. As Susanne put it: “I was so grateful for the experience and how life changing it was … it sounds really weird to say but it was like being given a gift.” She was not alone in describing the experience in this way.
Opening up to others
Several women, who described themselves as naturally independent and self-reliant, were prompted, by their illness, to be more open about their emotions and more expressive about their needs for support. In this way, their cancer experience extended their emotional range and led them to communicate their needs more clearly to others. Women often found that being more open prompted others to do the same and they were pleased by how receptive their friends, colleagues and family members were when they reached out. Over the course of treatment, Shelley realized that she needed to let other people be a part of her cancer journey.
I gave up laundry and dusting and a few household chores to the kids and they’re doing such a good job they can keep it. But it’s just... I don’t know how to describe that difference. And yet, it’s not so different from the normal. It’s how you approach your daily life at home and at work that was different for me. Things that I used to think were important are now secondary.
It’s been good to come to work not just for the work, it’s a social support for me as well. It’s been very supportive here. Some of the people I work with are very dear to my heart so I think what happened for me is my heart cracked wide open with this. It was sort of an opportunity to either open up or to shut down. That’s one of the gifts I think of the breast cancer.
Letting others do more
A common impact of women’s cancer experiences was that they learned to let others step up and do more rather than always feeling they had to be responsible for everything. This realization was especially powerful in relation to home and family where women typically shouldered a great deal of responsibility and often put their family’s needs before their own. Finding a better balance between the demands of family life and their own needs was a positive outcome for many women.
What I have found is that I used to look out for others rather than myself. My mother was sick, my father was sick, I used to run around for the doctors’ appointments and my kids. I ran after everything. The house, everything had to be proper. I realized that that’s not life, now I’m going to look out for myself.
So I had to learn to open up over the course of 16 chemo treatments to let other people in. It wasn’t just me fighting the cancer, it was me and my family; it was our friends, it was relatives, it was friends of friends, people who wanted to reach out and help.
Some women also generally became more assertive, more willing to speak up for themselves, more able to say no to others, and more able to advocate for themselves. Kathryn described this as cancer having given her “permission to be selfish.”
I think maybe I’m not quite the same person. I think I’m better at saying no. I think I’m better (at it). It’s not that I couldn’t say no before and it’s not that I wasn’t full of ideas but I think that I’m more assertive I guess. I think I am more assertive for the things that are important. I would say to (name husband) we should go on a holiday and then we’d get busy and it wouldn’t happen.
Many women found that their cancer experience led them to reconsider their priorities and to stop getting caught up in the inevitable dramas of everyday life. As Nalie put it: “A lot of things that used to stress me out and that I used to worry about and that I would consider important to me are actually not that important anymore. You kind of learn to prioritize sort of things.”
Deann felt the same way explaining that: “You just take a different outlook on life … Things that seemed more important before that time aren’t as important as what you thought they were.”
After the illness, we are trying to improve our quality of life. It means, we are trying. I don’t want to say that I am perfect but I am trying to help others. I am trying to do good things. I am trying to improve the situation of… and the quality of life, meaning I do not want… If the boss tells me: “There is no work for you.” I am not going to rack my brain, my destiny is there.
Margaret expressed a feeling that was shared by many women. Her cancer experience gave her a clarity of perspective that helped her focus on the things that really mattered to her:
“I think it’s made me appreciate every day and try to make the best of every day and there’s a lot of things in life that aren’t that important and to value the things that are important and do the things that are important. And try to stay positive. There are so many things in life that you can be positive about I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Reconsidering priorities also meant that some women found themselves acting on things immediately rather than delay. Isla described this noticeable change in herself:
“Certain things I’m not going to put off … I think it’s just a priority setting what’s important what would bug me if I didn’t get to the sort of harried life of work and kids and maybe you let things slide or don’t prioritize things for yourself or for your family and you start to say oh no we’re going to do that now because it’s everybody should act that way, right.”
Nadia had a similar perspective: “You know you change your thinking don’t wait until tomorrow if you want to do something do it today. If you want to say to somebody I love you say it today don’t wait until tomorrow.”
Gaining awareness of home and the environment
In addition to “not sweating the small stuff,” some women also found that they were more aware of the good things in their lives and greater appreciated the things they used to take for granted. Carol reflected on how she had come to see certain things as more important than her illness: “ I think I my blessings are so much bigger than this diagnosis. I have healthy kids, I have a good husband, I have a roof over our head, we have food, we live in a great country so I think I try and count the blessings more than dwell on the fact that I’m going through chemo.”
How many people would say living with what I’ve gone through is a positive experience, but for me it has been, it has been. It’s allowed me to grow and be a better person. I would say I’m a more giving person, kinder person than I was. I stop and smell the flowers more. Last year was my first year in this apartment.
But I believe that it completely changes a person, it changes your attitude towards life. The little pieces of happiness, what I call the little pieces of happiness, sometimes it is not much. Before I didn’t see them but now I do. The neighbor that comes here, that comes to talk to us, she is 4 years old, she is so funny, she is nice.
Greater self-appreciation and understanding
Several women felt that their experience had led to greater understanding and appreciation of themselves. For Tina , the positive experience was that “it’s helped me go deeper within myself to really know who I am and just be in the acceptance.” Lorna realized “I am stronger than I thought I was.” For others, like Julia dealing with their illness validated their pre-cancer sense of self. “It’s made me more who I already was … I was already on a path … and dealing with cancer has reinforced that I’m on the right path.”
Greater self-understanding could also mean being more accepting of your limitations and more appreciative of the life you have rather than the one you imagined.
My friends tell me that I’m much more laidback now which is a good thing. I have changed foundationally through this. I can start to tell you I don’t think the change is quite finished. I am beginning to appreciate my limitations, my humanness. There is not a great sort of enthusiastic well let’s go conquer the world. It’s okay, it’s all right, life is okay. I think that for me is the change.