Can getting cancer make you happy? For Betty Rollin, survivor of two breast cancers, there's no question about it. In her newest book, Here's the Bright Side, Rollin recounts:
"I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. Not that I didn't have all kinds of things to be happy about - love, work, good health, enough money, the usual happy-making stuff. The weird part is, I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer - that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were."
Her realization is hardly unique. I have met and read about countless people who, having faced life-threatening illness, end up happier, better able to appreciate the good things and people in their lives, more willing to take the time to smell the roses.
As Rollin put it: "It turns out there is often - it seems very often - an astonishingly bright side within darkness. People more than survive bum raps: they often thrive on them; they wind up stronger, livelier, happier; they wake up to new insights and new people and do better with the people around them who are not new. In short, they often wind up ahead."
This is not to suggest that battling cancer is pleasurable. Frustration, anger and grief are natural reactions. Cancer forces people to put their lives on hold. It can cause considerable physical and emotional pain and lasting disfigurement. It may even end in death.
But for many people who make it through, and even for some who do not, the experience gives them a new perspective on life and the people in it. It is as if their antennas become more finely tuned by having faced a mortal threat.
As a woman with incurable ovarian cancer recounted this spring in the New York Times: "I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried. I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I'm happier now than I was before I was diagnosed."
Sometimes such changes happen to those who live through the cancer experiences of others. My mother died at age 49 of ovarian cancer, and I went off to college thinking that every moment was precious, to be used productively both for personal betterment and for what I could offer to the world. At 18 I wrote a speech on preparing one's own epitaph - about being able to say that however long your life, you lived it fully and made it count for something meaningful.
Now, 48 years later, as people I know succumb to intractable illness or sudden death, I am even more attuned to the need to savor every moment and do whatever I can to make the world a better place and nurture relationships with friends and family.
Michael Feuerstein, a clinical psychologist and author with Patricia Findley of The Cancer Survivor's Guide, was 52 when he was told he had an inoperable brain tumor and was given a year to live. But Feuerstein didn't die - he survived extensive debilitating treatment and gained a new outlook.
He wrote: "I now realize that I am fortunate. Now, after the cancer, I find I can more easily put life in perspective. I re-evaluated my workload, opting to spend more time at home. I take more time for what matters to me most: my wife and my children and grandchild. I also allocate time to better understand cancer survivor-ship from a scientific point of view, so I can help others in my situation translate this work into useful answers to the question, 'now what?' I am optimistic about the future and excited to leave my unique mark on the world."