Living with and beyond cancer

Changed attitudes or personal growth

It is common for people who have survived serious illness to say that the experience has changed their outlook on life, particularly if they thought that they might have lost their life through the illness. Some said that although they wouldn’t have chosen to have cancer they are glad about the ways in which it has changed their life for the better. Not everyone feels this way, some said the illness had not changed their life or that there had been no positive outcomes.
Having faced the possibility of death some people said that they now appreciated how short life could be and life now seemed precious and they felt glad to be alive. For some people their new appreciation of life meant being thankful for what they had and not regretting things they lacked. For others it meant seeing the beauty of the natural world around them with fresh eyes.
People who have had cancer often said that it put things in their life into perspective and they no longer took life for granted and valued it more. Making the most of every day and enjoying themselves was now very important. While some took life at a slower pace and spent time appreciating the smaller things in life, others wanted to waste no time and tried to pack in as much activity as possible, sometimes making spontaneous decisions to do things. Wendy felt it was important to make the time to do nice things, like seeing friends or family. A man who’d had testicular cancer 6 years ago said that he had resumed doing hobbies that he had enjoyed when younger. A man who had survived testicular cancer for 15 years said that he always wanted to remember his cancer so he would never take life for granted.
Another common reaction to having had cancer was for people to reassess their priorities, realise what was important in life and make changes to improve its quality in various ways. Some reduced the amount of time they spent working to devote more time to themselves, friends and family, or to hobbies. Others took more holidays abroad to visit places which they’d never been to. A woman who had cervical cancer 8 years ago said that before her illness, “I just saw life as a huge sort of challenge and a big list of jobs really to get through”. She has since given up work and got involved in more spiritual things and says her life has changed fundamentally. One woman said that she found it difficult to take more time for herself while she was still working full-time and had young children. Another said she was now able to say no to things she didn’t want to do. A man who had testicular cancer in his twenties said it made him realise that he should make financial provision for his wife despite his relative youth, so he updated his insurance policies.
Another change was to live in the present and do things now that people might not have considered doing before their illness or would have been inclined to put off until later. This commonly involved travelling abroad. Les said that having penile cancer 14 years ago had made him, “grasp life by the balls”, and that, “if I want to do something I’ll just go and do it”.
By contrast, others said they had no desire to rush off and see the world. Pauline said that having colorectal cancer six years ago, “hasn’t made me feel I’ve got to do everything today because I might be dead tomorrow”.
Many people said that because having cancer had helped them to put things in perspective they no longer worried about small things that nowadays seemed unimportant to them, such as work, bills or household chores. For example one man said, “Every day since I’ve been out of that hospital I’ve never worried about a dripping tap or a leaking washing machine or does the car need washing or does the grass need cutting”. However, some people still found themselves worrying about little things; one man said, “I get frustrated when I get angry and annoyed at the trivialities of life because there’s no need”, and another said that being petty could be seen as a sign of normality returning.
Having been through serious illness, some people said it had given them greater understanding of other people’s problems, saying they were now more empathetic or compassionate towards others. A few said they felt a bond with other cancer survivors. Others said they had become more tolerant or less judgemental of other people or had more patience. However, a few said they had less time nowadays for people who complained about things or were materialistic.
Dealing with the difficulties of cancer diagnosis and treatment had led some people to discover strengths within themselves that they had been previously unaware of, or they said that the experience had made them a stronger, more positive or confident person. Some said they had learned a lot about themselves in the process and were proud of how they had got through it. Surviving the illness had made people realise that they were capable of handling difficult situations and some now felt equipped to tackle challenges that they would have shied away from before. Others said it had given them the confidence to speak their mind or to talk to people about sensitive topics or things that really mattered.
Some people said that they valued relationships with their friends and family more than they had done before their illness or that those relationships had become closer or more meaningful. One woman said it had made her a better mother. Others were grateful for new relationships they had developed through their illness, for instance with other cancer survivors or health professionals who had looked after them.


​Last reviewed August 2015.

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