Illustration by Kim Carney / Fred Hutch News Service
Cancer carved equally deep ruts in both lives: mothers lost, personal diagnoses faced, tough treatments endured.
But after calculating the tally rendered by their diseases, the two women formed far different conclusions on one profound point.
For Deborah Przekop, a survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer carried transformative lessons about love and purpose, she said. She now knits scarves and hands them to strangers on the street. To her, cancer is a gift.
For Nancy Stordahl, a survivor of breast cancer, the disease sharpened her critiques of sugarcoated “cancer language,” inspiring her to blog about platitudes. To her, cancer is most definitely not a gift.
Courtesy of Nancy Stordahl
“My mother died from metastatic breast cancer. It’s insulting to stage 4 patients to call cancer a gift. How can something that kills anyone be a gift for me or be a gift for anybody? I can’t get past that,” Stordahl said. In fact, she abhors the word so much in that context, she just published a book challenging its use.
The concept that cancer can bestow life-boosting positives has been echoed by – maybe fueled by – several celebrity survivors who used the g-word in interviews. They include TV host Joan Lunden and singers Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge.
Famous or not, many patients seeking to adapt to a potentially lethal illness are driven by a desire to find meaning and exert mastery over the experience, said Dr. Jesse Fann, director of psychiatry and psychology services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“Some patients are able to find some often unexpected benefits from their experience with cancer, such as a stronger appreciation for life, renewed confidence in their own resiliency, a reprioritization of their values and goals, heightened spirituality and empathy for others, stronger and more meaningful relationships, and improved health behaviors – such as improved diet and exercise and decreased smoking and drinking,” said Fann.
“The ability of patients to identify these benefits tends to increase over time,” he added.
In Fann’s experience, most patients see cancer as “a bit of both” – gift and not.
“This is not a black or white issue,” said Fann, who is also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. “I know very few cancer survivors who are 100 percent glad that they had cancer.”
Courtesy of Deborah Przekop
Six years after her non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis, Przekop routinely drives through the Seattle area with a bagful of gifts – a generous habit she pins squarely on the disease. The sack typically contains 50 to 70 scarves that she knitted. When a pedestrian catches her eye – a woman at a bus stop or a homeless person – she often stops her car to give them one of her creations.
“I would never had thought of that, I would never have done that [before cancer],” said Przekop, an SCCA patient.
The disease has been in remission for a year and a half. Her oncolologist has told her it will eventually recur, she added.
“I’ve settled on a few things that make me appreciate every moment of every day. And the way I do that is through love. I find that the more I give away, the more I receive. This has become a huge part of my life. I’m telling you, it’s amazing,” said Przekop, whose mother died of lung cancer.
"After being diagnosed with a cancer that is incurable and knowing that I would not be a survivor, I had to decide how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I decided that I wanted to be as happy as possible and went about changing my life to accomplish that very thing, and I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. … It is not true that you are doomed to a life of pain and emotional distress. It is a personal choice and it has a great deal to do with courage, acceptance and peace.”
But Przekop acknowledges every patient is different and that for some, cancer “is never a gift.” That may include, she said, fellow patients she knows – those who are “obviously depressed and sick. They’re not looking like it’s a gift.”
On the opposite side of the philosophy, Stordahl winces at the word “gift.” Yet she similarly respects all patients’ prerogative to “do cancer how they want,” including seeing it as a valuable moment, she said.
From her vantage point, there were simply no epiphanies or lessons to be learned, and the illness didn’t improve her as a person, she said. (In fact, the name of her book is “Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person.”)
“I think our society, in general, has this tendency to try to turn everything into a positive. I understand the desire to look for something good, even in cancer. I understand that silver lining concept. But, I mean, cancer sucks,” said Stordahl, who received her breast cancer diagnosis in 2010, two years after her mother died of metastatic breast cancer.
“How you deal with it is a different thing. But cancer is bad. You can twist it, reshape it, try to reframe it anyway you want. But it’s still a deadly, or potentially deadly, horrible disease,” added Stordahl, who lives in western Wisconsin.
Stordahl is part of an increasingly vocal group of survivors and patients – many of them bloggers – who seek to aim a heavy dose of realness at a culture that, they assert, is overly sunny and highly simplistic when it comes to talking about life with cancer, and beyond.
They openly deride common, cancer-associated catchphrases like “just stay positive” and “everything happens for a reason.”
“To me, [that belief] is just to assign meaning to something that is scary for humans,” said Wendi Dennis, a breast cancer survivor from Maryland who blogs as the "Cancer Curmudgeon."
“But which is scarier, getting cancer, or the idea that there is no meaning? Personally, I’m OK with the idea that there is no meaning, that it was just a random thing that happened, and that I consider that thing – cancer – to be bad, and I don’t need to give it meaning.”
What about friends and family who just want to console cancer patients, who merely seek to speak from a place of support? Should they ever suggest that the disease might turn out to be a gift?
Psychiatrist Fann submits that nobody should impose his or her own perceptions of cancer onto a patient or survivor. Instead, they could help their friends and loved ones recognize their strengths and resiliency and acknowledge positive aspects of their lives, he said.
The two bloggers offered another piece of advice.
“Why not be quiet and listen?” asked Dennis.
“You don’t have to fix every bad situation,” Stordahl said. “Just be there. Silence is underrated.”
Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."
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