Valuable Life Lessons I Learned From a Cancer Diagnosis
I’m celebrating a remarkable milestone this August—10 years of being cancer-free.
Once upon a time, 10 years seemed like a distant goal for me. During my most pessimistic phase, I didn’t think I’d even make it past 3 years, let alone 10. And now here I am. The fact that I’m not only still alive—but living the best kind of life I could ask for—never fails to amaze me and fill my heart with gratitude.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that cancer was the best thing that happened to me. Because it wasn’t—not by a long shot.
It was a torturous and terrifying experience that took me many years to come to terms with. I still have battle scars that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life, not to mention a long list of scary side-effects and secondary diseases that may be lurking somewhere down the road, waiting for a chance to strike.
But I don’t hate the fact that I had cancer either. Not anymore. I’ve learned to accept cancer as a part of my life journey—and a valuable part at that, even though at times certain memories still wring my heart.
How did I make peace with cancer?
I’ve come to realize that cancer has taught me many things about myself and about life that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise—or at least not for another decade or two. As much as cancer has taken away from me, it has paid me back in life lessons that pushed me to grow at a stunning pace.
And what are these life lessons?
Here’s a list of the 8 best lessons I learned in life from a cancer diagnosis.
1. Stop Worrying About Things That Haven’t Happened Yet
I used to worry a lot about things that haven’t happened yet.
What if I get an incurable disease?
What if I lose my job and can’t pay the mortgage?
What if the people I love leave me?
And it goes on and on.
But having cancer made me realize that life is unpredictable, and no amount of worrying can make it less so.
Most of the bad things I worry about will never come true, but a few of them probably will. I have no way of knowing which ones will happen and when. If I spend all my time worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, then I’ll waste precious moments I have stressing over things have no control over.
So I’ve learned to stop worrying about the things that haven’t happened yet.
2. We Have to Accept We May Never Find the Answer to Certain Questions
One of the toughest lessons cancer taught me is that we have to accept the fact that we may never find the answer to certain questions in life.
I used to often wonder why bad things happen to good people.
Some people say it’s karma. Others say it’s the devil’s work. Still others say it’s just bad luck. There was a time when I didn’t know what to believe anymore.
My desperate search for an answer did not make me any healthier or happier. Instead, it was making me more frustrated and resentful, especially after I found out I had cancer. I was young, never smoked or did drugs, and I ate a relatively healthy diet. I was loving, honest, and kind. So what the heck went wrong? And nobody could give me a satisfactory answer.
So eventually, I stopped looking for an answer. I realized there are things in life that may always remain a mystery, and I have to learn to live with that. Sometimes we may never find the answer to a nagging question no matter how much we want to know the truth, and we have to accept it and try our best to enjoy the life in front of us.
3. Life’s Too Short to Spend It Pleasing Other People
Do you worry a lot about what others think?
That was me before I had cancer. I worried about what people thought of my looks, my academic performance, how much money my family had (or shall I say, didn’t have), and on and on. I was people-pleaser through and through.
Cancer was a wake-up call for me.
For the first time in my life, the possibility of death was real. It was so close I could feel its cold breath on the back of my neck. It dawned on me that life could be cut short at any time for any one of us. What a waste if we had spent all of it pleasing other people instead of enjoying ourselves!
So I stopped worrying so much about what others think. I started speaking more of what’s on my mind (without being rude of course), wearing clothes I feel the most comfortable in, and listening more to my own heart than the opinions of others. And it was liberating. I feel more love and compassion for myself, and not to mention more joy in my life.
4. Courage is not the Absence of Fear
Another important lesson I learned from cancer is that fear doesn’t have to dictate the actions we take. We can be both scared out of our wits and incredibly brave at the same time.
I had always thought I knew what fear was—until I received my cancer diagnosis. At first I didn’t know how to cope with it—it paralyzed me and turned me into a helpless wreck. I spent every minute of every day holed up in my hospital bed, waiting to be fed and be told what to do.
Then one day, a nurse told me something that made me think. She said:
There are two kinds of patients in here. Those who fight and those who don’t. The fighters always seem to do better.
So I decided I wanted to be a fighter too. I started to pay attention to the other fighters around me. The patients who got dressed in the morning and kept themselves out of their beds. The ones who walked laps in the hallway even though no one pushed them to. The ones who talked to the nurses at their desks, even laughing with them from time to time.
Were they not scared? How were they able to do all this? I was intrigued. I began to talk to some of them, hoping to learn the secret to their courage. But I was surprised to find out that most of them were just as scared and uncertain about the future as I was. In fact, some were facing truly dire circumstances, and yet they still faced every day with all the strength they could muster.
That was when I learned that you don’t have to let fear determine how you live. Fear is normal, and it may always be there, but we have the power to choose how we respond to it.
5. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Cancer taught me how to put things in perspective.
Before my cancer diagnosis, I had a real problem with letting things go.
If I felt I was being treated unfairly, even in the slightest way, I’d feel I was wronged. If I made a mistake, even if it was a minor one, I’d feel useless and stupid. Every rude remark, off-handed comment, look of disapproval, or mean gesture left stains in my memory that refused to go away.
Needless to say, it was an exhausting and painful way to live.
But after I learned that I had cancer, none of these things mattered anymore. So what if a coworker took more credit than the effort he put in? So what if I can’t excel at everything I do? And so what if someone said or did something that hurt my ego? They suddenly seemed so tiny, so insignificant, and so unworthy of my tears and frustration.
Now whenever I find my mind getting stuck on something, I remind myself how lucky I am to still be here, and that nothing—especially not these minor annoyances—should be allowed to dampen the joy I get from another day of life.
6. Our Thoughts Determine Our Reality
Our mind has the power to turn our thoughts into reality. The more you think of yourself a certain way, the more you become that person in your mind.
I got my taste of this lesson soon after I received my cancer diagnosis. For a long period of time, I saw myself as a “cancer patient” or “cancer sufferer”. I spent most of my days thinking about how terrible I looked and felt, and how unfortunate I was to get this disease.
I felt I was somehow less than other healthy people my age because I was sick.
These thoughts not only made me unhappy, they had a real physiological impact on me as well. I felt lethargic and unmotivated to do anything. Because I was so idle all the time, I started having sleeping problems and I lost significant muscle strength. My sense of wellbeing during that time was pretty much non-existent.
Then I made small changes in how I described and thought of myself.
Instead of calling myself a “cancer patient” or “cancer sufferer”, I started to look at myself as a “cancer fighter” or “cancer warrior”. Instead of thinking how unfortunate I was because I was going through something nobody around me was going through, I told myself the experience made me unique.
And believe it or not, these seemingly minor tweaks in my thoughts made a huge difference in how I felt and behaved. I exercised more, pushed myself to stick to a better daily routine, and even adopted productive hobbies such as practicing a new language and writing. And in turn, I felt more energetic, optimistic, and motivated to keep improving my life.
7. You Can Still Find Happiness in Difficult Times
One surprising lesson I learned from cancer is that you can still find happiness in difficult times.
I used to think that if something horrendous—like a serious, life-changing illness—happened to me, I wouldn’t be able to smile again for a long time. So when I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought my life would be shrouded in darkness for as long as the disease still loomed over my head.
But I was wrong. I came to realize that, even during periods of distress and despair, I could still find moments of joy and peace. In the glow of sunrise outside my hospital window. In the warmth of my mother’s pork bone soup. And in the gentle caress of my love.
I learned that no matter what happens in the future, and no matter how impossible it seems right now, I’ll be able to find my smile again.
8. Gratitude is Essential to Mental Wellbeing
Cancer taught me that having an attitude of gratitude is essential to our mental wellbeing.
Gratitude helps us shift our focus from the bad things in our lives to the things that are still going well. It protects us from the damaging effects of anxiety and stress, and has been shown to improve our mental health over time.
I didn’t always have a grateful heart, and I certainly wasn’t in a thankful mood when a cancer diagnosis came out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground. Instead, I cried, I whined, and I felt sorry for myself. But I noticed the more I complained about my plight, the worse I felt inside. I was stuck in a vicious cycle of constant negativity.
Gratitude helped pull me out of that cycle. It wasn’t easy cultivating an attitude of gratitude—it took time, effort, and willpower. But it was worth it. I was able to keep my spirits up in some of the lowest points in my life—and I have gratitude to thank for that.
Cancer Affects Us All
We are all touched by cancer in some way. You may be a survivor like me. You may be battling cancer this very moment. Or you know and love someone who has cancer. I want to hear your story. How has cancer affected you and what—if anything—did you learn from it?
And last but not least, I wouldn’t be here today if a stranger didn’t sign up to donate his bone marrow. There are countless blood cancer warriors fighting the battle of their lives as we speak. You may hold the key to help someone win the fight. Learn how you can become a donor today.