Cancer — the gift that never was

  • 6 June 2012


Some people call cancer a gift. Nancy’s Point doesn’t think so. A genuine gift touches the heart. That’s why she calls her cat Ninja a gift.

So what is a gift? The first meaning in is “Something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.” Cancer satisfies neither of these requirements: it’s not voluntary and it’s not free. It’s like calling store customers “guests,” a term I link to those who are invited to an event without any expectation of payment.

Would a Christmas ornament be considered a gift when the giver doesn’t know what else to give at that time of year? When the giver doesn’t like his or her ornament and “regifts” it to another? Now that the weather has cooled off for a few days, I’ve tunneled back into my storage unit, this time rummaging through those red and green symbols of a December holiday ripe with commercialism.

Ripe as in the commercialism associated with pink October for breast cancer awareness. Can’t we hunt for red October instead?

What do I salvage from seven big plastic containers and two rolling cabinets of Christmas accessories? The ones that someone bought for me?  The ones my children made in school? The ones my mother created in her ceramics class? The ones that would make me feel guilty if I gave them away or threw them out?

No, those are not the criteria I use.  I examine each item closely. Does it rock my boat? Is it eye candy to me? Does the bangle have special memories attached to it, memories I never want to lose? Once I put the decoration through this cosmetic and emotional ringer, I place it in the discard, thrift store, or save pile. I’m down now to three Christmas tubs plus one four-drawer cabinet on wheels. That’s more than enough.

Why would I save centerpieces or garlands just for the sake of keepsakes? If they represent a painful memory, they perhaps should be repurposed and given to someone else who might appreciate them. They can be donated to a good charity to benefit others.

If I adhered to that pattern of saving symbols of painful memories, I would be compelled to keep my compression bandages even if I were cured of lymphedema. Why would I cherish a reminder of the gift wrapping of my arm? Lymphedema itself is a daily reminder of my “gift” of cancer, complete with daily arm compression sleeves and cotton stockinettes, underwrapping, foam and short-stretch bandages. Fortunately, more fashionable alternatives exist for daily wear such as LympheDIVA sleeves. But still. Wouldn’t we rather not present with the condition at all?

I believe those who insist that cancer is indeed a gift want themselves or a loved one to feel better, to believe they are stronger and more resilient as a result.  And maybe there is some truth to that. But would I wish it on anybody or wrap it up and bring it to the neighbors as if it were homemade cookies? Avon calling?


Cancer not only destroys confidence in one’s appearance, but can ruin relationships and promises for the future. Every little ache and pain I experience reminds me that my cancer may return. My primary-care physician and oncologist take those pains seriously. That’s what really bothers me. Why don’t they just say it’s arthritis or muscle strain from overactivity, or indigestion or tannins from a glass of red wine? Why do they immediately order a scan to see what it might be? Or maybe two or three scans in case the first is not conclusive?

Denial might keep us from seeing a doctor at all. But our nagging anxiety eventually makes us succumb to some sort of test, whether it’s chest x-ray, bone scan, rib x-ray, angiogram, EKG, ECHO, MRI or CT. The alphabet soup chokes me sometimes.

The cumulative effect of three types of chemo as well as Herceptin and two types of daily pills for years has taken its toll on me. I exhibit signs and symptoms that stump the medical specialists because I’m still a guinea pig, even in the 21st century. They usually don’t see a two-time breast cancer patient living as long as I do with no evidence of disease. Because the symptoms don’t follow the usual course and resolve quickly, the physicians and medical technicians err on the side of caution and become scan-happy.

But I’m the one faced with the outrageous premiums for medical insurance that still requires deductibles and co-pays. And guess who foots the bill for anxiety pills I take as I face these scans? It seems sometimes that the medical profession doesn’t care that I pay so much out of pocket. I’ve learned from Dr. Wendy Harpham in her June 3, 2012 “On Healthy Survivorship” blog post that I can ask if the doctors have any flexibility in their recommendations. If not, I may be wise to seek a different physician, one who is willing to deal with a partially non-compliant patient.

Is cancer a gift? I don’t think so. If it is, it’s a gift that keeps on taking. Taking away a scan-free future, taking away my youth, taking away my carefree attitude about ageing, taking away my self-worth as a lover and friend.

My love language is not gifts. It’s acts of service and quality time. So the best gift for me is the gift of time:  time spent talking, catching up, doing things together and for one another. No other gift is as important to me. In the last several months I’ve discarded many gifts by donating them to thrift stores or consignment stores, or regifting them to bless another. They take up too much room–and hence, money–sitting in a storage unit, waiting for someone to appreciate them. There’s only so many that will fit under my bed.

Given the choice, I would never make room for cancer. Or, heaven forbid, regift it. Banish the thought!

Do you think cancer is a gift? What’s the best gift you’ve been given? What is your primary love language? If you don’t know, click on the above “love languages” link and find out.

  • Catherine

    Banish the thought indeed – regifting cancer is a horrible idea. I think anyone who has/has had cancer wouldn’t wish it upon their worst enemy regardless of whether or not they define that experience as a gift.

  • jhasak

    Yes, regifting cancer is out of the question, regardless of how one views it. Thanks for your view on the subject, Catherine. xx

  • Lori Hope

    Hi, Jan- The “gift”of cancer has left me too weak to write anything of substance in response – but want you to know i’m here reading your words, taking them in, feeling them, digesting them. CAncer is not a gift. But you are.

  • Beth L. Gainer


    My views on cancer have changed over the years. When I was recovering from my double mastectomy with reconstruction, I was a tad naive. I wasn’t sure whether cancer was a gift. My life had gotten so much better after leaving a bad marriage: the thing I would not have done had I not gotten cancer. At that time, I reasoned, cancer made me seek help and make friends.

    But at the place I am now, I KNOW cancer is not a gift. It’s a torturous, heinous disease, leaving serious repercussions in its wake.

  • jhasak

    It’s so good to hear from you, Lori. Any response from you at all is a gift to me. And you make me blush with your kind words. Thank you for stopping by. Prayers your way. xx

  • jhasak

    Beth, I know exactly what you mean. I had that same naiveté when I was diagnosed, even for the second time. Getting cancer can make you set priorities and make needed changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a gift. Choosing our words carefully can really set the pace for our lives. Thank you for your insights. xx

  • Marie Ennis-O’Connor (@JBBC)

    I don’t think cancer, or any of life’s challenges are gifts per se, but I do believe that they are opportunities to break open to life. Caught up in the routines of daily living, it is easy to avoid doing this. But cancer stops you in your tracks. With cancer there is no hiding place, all those dark corners are exposed to the light. Cancer is an invitation, should you choose to take it, to re-examine your life, to discover ways of leading a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

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  • Cara Novy-Bennewitz (@CancerNavig8tor)

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I view cancer, like many events in our lives, as an opportunity. As Marie said, it stops you cold in your tracks. It forces you off the treadmill of life you have been on. Although it is certainly unwelcome,a cancer diagnosis often provides an opportunity for you to take a closer look at your life choices and reflect on if they are really working for you or not and hopefully give you the courage and conviction to make the necessary changes to be living the life you truly want.

  • jhasak

    You’re right, of course, Marie. These health challenges certainly present opportunities and invitations. The Chinese characters for crisis mean “hidden opportunity”. And cancer is certainly that. Thanks for your insights. Sometimes loved ones choose words without thinking, and linguists will twist and turn them every which way to demean the person who meant well. So we need to tread lightly, but tread we must if we want to bring across our points of view. And onward we go as we keep the discussion alive. xx

  • jhasak

    Cara, that is very true. As I indicated to Marie, the Chinese wisely call a crisis a hidden opportunity. It can embolden us to change what doesn’t work in our lives. I’ve seen many lives changed for the better after going through the ringer, mine included. I can say that honestly even though I’ve gone through some worse crises than cancer since my second bout with it. Thank you very much for your wise input. xx

  • Kathi

    My take on this is that we are all, sooner or later, going to be visited by catastrophe. But we can choose how to meet those catastrophes, which may lead us to blessings. To call the catastrophe itself a gift is, I think, another example of being careless with words. Floods, hurricanes, political tyranny, cancer, none of those are gifts. But sometimes, in dealing with them, we find people who shine.

  • jhasak

    Great take on the discussion, Kathi. Indeed, careless use of words can lead to insensitive remarks that weren’t meant that way. Those disasters you mention are called “Acts of God” or “force majeure” in legal contracts, never “Gifts of God” or “gifts majeure.” You are right, though, that if we have faced that type of trauma, we may find those human gems whom we never would have met or never seen shine if we hadn’t undergone what we did. Thanks so much for your input. xx

  • Pinkunderbelly

    No way do I see cancer as a gift, nor do I feel I needed it to fully appreciate life. Perhaps it’s helped me learn to not sweat the small stuff, but I could have done that without such a rude interruption to my life overall. Through all the tests, scans and doctor’s appointments, i no longer have a fear of needles, and I’ve made wonderful friends–many of whom I know only through blogs–though, so it’s not all bad!

  • Dianne Duffy

    Wow! Good post! I have these very thoughts often. Thanks for writing them down. Cancer is not a gift.I have friends that say, “without cancer I wouldn’t have the same relationship with my husband.” Or other stuff like that. I feel like replying, ” Really? How do you know that? Maybe you would have. Or maybe it would even be better.”

    Cancer and its after-effects have put a tremendous strain on our family that was doing ok before it invaded our lives. No gift here!

    I took the love language test also and have the same ones as you.Service and quality time. I have spent the last year giving away all of my clothes. I had to get all new clothes since cancer because it left me with CRPS, basically clothing related pain. All new clothes for me. Bah! I liked the old clothes! Never wanted any new ones…

    Stupid cancer!

    Thanks for writing.


  • jhasak

    I agree that we can only speculate what would have happened if we didn’t get cancer. Situations might have been better. And the strain on families and loved ones really can’t be denied. How interesting that you have the same love languages as I do. I’m so sorry that you had to give up all your clothes. That’s no gift. I had to give up sweaters and turtlenecks that emphasized my asymmetric chest and my swollen arm. Stupid cancer is right. Thanks for your affirming comment, Dianne.

  • jhasak

    I agree, Nancy. We could have learned not to sweat the small stuff through some other, less drastic event. I, too, used to have a fear of needles, and hadn’t thought about no longer having that fear. And you are right: Writing about cancer has given me some wonderful blogging friends, you included. Thanks for stopping by. xx

  • Dianne Duffy

    Speaking of blogging friends, we should meet up some time. I think you’re right over the hill – I’m in Livermore. We have some similar difficulties following our cancer experience. I have never met or even heard of anyone with the same difficulties as me. It’s somewhat frustrating and alienating for me. And I have no close friends that have ever had breast cancer. Let me know if you’re up for that.


  • jhasak

    Dianne, I’m not exactly right over the hill. My son lives in that area, but I live much farther north. That’s interesting how we share similar difficulties following cancer treatment. Unfortunately I have had somewhat close friends who’ve gone through breast cancer. My best friends haven’t, and I hope they never do. Perhaps when I am in the Bay Area again we can get together. It’s important to have people around you who understand you. xx

  • Nancy’s Point

    Well, I guess you know how I feel about this one already! And thanks for the mention, too, by the way. How could I possibly call cancer a gift when it stole my mother and then ambushed me? Being BRCA2 +, cancer also casts a shadow of uncertainty over my children’s future. I agree with Kathi. Some of the things that come our way via catastrophes are blessings, but to call the catastrophic event itself a gift makes no sense to me. In my mind there is a huge difference. I will never call cancer a gift. Never. Thanks for writing this post, Jan.

  • jhasak

    Yes, I absolutely DO know how you feel on this one, Nancy. There’s no way it’s a gift of any kind. You’re welcome for the mention. When you broached the subject, I just knew I had to “unwrap” my two cents worth. Thanks so much for stopping by. xx

  • Florence Strang

    Very thought provoking discussion! I would have to say that cancer itself is NOT a gift, but I do believe that it has brought some very positive changes into my life which ARE gifts. I would be happy to part with my cancer, but not the changes (or “gifts”) that resulted from the cancer…..if that makes sense.

  • jhasak

    Florence, your comment does make perfect sense to me. The language of cancer can be tricky, but when we parse the words we can often see the meaning that’s really behind them. Gifts is one such word. Thanks for stopping by. xx