Summer meadow with wildflowers and sun peeking through clouds

Cancer and Life Lessons

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Experience is a hard teacher. She gives the test first and the lessons afterwards. ~Anonymous

It’s fascinating to read the stories of people who’ve had to deal with cancer and how they’ve been affected by the experience. Some come to reassess what’s important in their lives and set off in exciting new directions.  And others learn how to adapt to changed capabilities while continuing to do what is important to them and brings joy to their lives.

As I was reading a few of those stories recently, I found myself reflecting back on my own experience with cancer, and whether it has changed me in any way.

I’ve twice been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. For me, I think that, more than any dramatic change, it has come down to having learned some valuable life lessons from each experience.

Early Lessons

Being faced with a diagnosis of breast cancer at age 35 just seemed incomprehensible. One way to describe it, odd as it may sound, was that it was a little like one of those bad dreams where you’re taking a test in school that you forgot to study for. I certainly knew nothing about breast cancer itself–the different types, treatments, prognoses etc. And I also new nothing about the emotional side–how to cope, how to get help, and so forth. All these things I had to learn, and learn fast.

It’s a hard test. With a cancer diagnosis, beyond those kinds of details, we’re faced with the possible loss of life. It’s especially jarring when we’re young and tend to think we’re immortal. Cancer is by no means the only life experience that forces you to face in a concrete way the reality that there will in fact be an end to your life someday, but it’s a big one.

There were also some practical lessons from that first experience that would be a great help to me later. One was understanding just how important it is to be informed and engaged in dealing with the medical world. This is essential in order to be an effective advocate, whether it’s for ourselves or for a loved one. And another lesson that was brought home to me early on was what a difference it can make when you’re not afraid to reach out for the help and support that you need.

Dealing with a Second Diagnosis

Twelve years later, I was faced with a second diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, which was considered by my doctor to be a “local recurrence”. The very hardest part of this experience was the anxious first couple of months, with numerous doctor visits, a procedure to remove the new lump, various scans and waiting for those results, and finally the time it took to decide on a treatment plan with my doctors.

A big lesson for me this second time around was learning how to cope with the fear of losing control, of not knowing what exactly I faced. Before too long I came to realize that what you do have control of is the small and large choices you make every day that add up to the life that you live.

There was an intensified awareness too that time really is precious and we need to choose very carefully how we spend it. We need to make sure that we do the things that matter most to us rather than putting them off to some later time.

And I also came to realize more concretely that all of us have the ability to help others by sharing our stories and experiences, no matter what road we’ve traveled. Having our stories to share is a gift, but it’s a gift that every one of us has and that we all can contribute.

The Bigger Picture

I think that as a result of the experiences I’ve had in life so far, which have unfortunately included two episodes with cancer, there were a number of very important life lessons that I probably learned sooner than I otherwise would have.

But it is impossible to ignore the bigger picture. The reality today is that cancer is a set of diseases that  we still don’t know nearly enough about. We still don’t know how to prevent it and large numbers still die from cancer at very young or relatively young ages. We need to understand how factors in our external environment interact with inherited mutations or other susceptibilities to lead to cancer.  And most of all we need to learn how to stop the disease process–to prevent it or to intervene effectively when it does start.

Related Posts
My Breast Cancer Story
Reflections on Advocating for Change

Photo credit: Ase via Shutterstock


  1. Hi Lisa,
    “Experience is a hard teacher” – as is cancer. We learn from all things we experience in life including the bad things. I have often asked myself if I’ve changed since my diagnosis. Obviously, I have on the outside, but on the inside, well, that’s harder to self-evaluate honestly I guess. but I’m pretty sure I have. Cancer or no cancer, we all keep evolving, adapting and hopefully learning from everything life throws our way. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      I agree it’s harder to honestly evaluate ourselves as to whether we’ve changed. I tend to think I’m basically the same and I don’t think I’m “better” as a result of having experienced cancer. But there’s no doubt there are lessons learned and so I thought about what some of those were for me. Thanks for your thoughts on this!

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