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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.
 

Six years after having testicular cancer he is unaware of any changes in his outlook as a result...

Six years after having testicular cancer he is unaware of any changes in his outlook as a result...

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 44
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And has all this sort of affected you sort of long term, emotionally and psychologically do you think?
 
I don't think it has, no.
 
No.
 
I think it should have done but, you know, they say that it changes you and gives you a different look on life, but at the moment I don't think it's changed me at all, I think I'm still the same as I was before.

 

 

Alan says that his attitude to life has not changed as a result of having prostate cancer 10...

Alan says that his attitude to life has not changed as a result of having prostate cancer 10...

Age at interview: 80
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 69
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Do you think that having had cancer has changed your perspective on things in any way? So, some people say it makes them appreciate life more or see things a bit different. Do you think that’s true for you?
 
Not particularly as I’m aware of, I don’t think, no. I suppose having never been ill in my life previously before having the cancer, I suppose I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t totally immune to everything, but other than that, no, I think attitudes haven’t changed a great deal.
 
Again, I feel I’m one of those very lucky people who’s gone through life feeling pretty fit most of the time and continued to do so really.
 
So having had cancer hasn’t really slowed you down in many ways?
 
No, it hasn’t, no.
 
Which is good. 
 
As I said, I feel extremely fortunate really. 
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.
 

Having survived lung cancer for six years he wakes up each day and feels glad to be alive.

Having survived lung cancer for six years he wakes up each day and feels glad to be alive.

Age at interview: 75
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 69
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What's been the sort of long-term effects of all this on you emotionally, apart from physically?
 
Well it's very difficult of course. It's very difficult to talk about that now the years are rolling by, but I suppose if it's done anything to me it's sort of made me wake up every day and think well, you know, thank God for another day. And I mean what's the good of complaining about if the weather is not right or this is not right? Just, you know, you're just glad to be here and that's it. It does give you a look at life that you didn't have before.

 

 

When leaving hospital after colorectal cancer treatment Thomas was reawakened to the beauty of...

When leaving hospital after colorectal cancer treatment Thomas was reawakened to the beauty of...

Age at interview: 79
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 69
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From what you were saying before it sounded like when you came out of hospital you almost saw things differently.
 
In many ways, it’s hard to say whether rebirth would be a bit extreme, but it wasn’t, the light didn’t suddenly shine upon me or anything like that, but just, oddly enough, I was standing in that, waiting at the door while they bring the car to pick me up, I thought, I was just realising, you know, you miss a lot of things in life. We miss a lot of the, well, beauty, for want of the extreme things in life. You go to a park, you walk through the park, get a breath of fresh air but you don’t, sometimes you might not admire the flower beds or something else like that, but you don’t, you look at it but you don’t really see it, and you’re not going to say, oh, you know, God did quite a good job here. It’s, as I say, a rebirth, possibly a realisation of what life has in it.
 
Do you think that you would have felt that way if you hadn’t had cancer?
 
I don’t think so really. Fortunately, apart from the odd broken bone, I’ve gone through life without any hospital work and that was the first serious illness I’ve ever had, and I saw, maybe I just sort of breezed through. I breezed through life and got on with it. In many ways, possibly I’ve looked too, too inward looking at a very small area, but when you see what you’ve missed, and it’s, that is nothing in itself, a green lawn, tulips, a lily pond, daffodils, crocus and blue skies, it’s nothing splendid. There are thousands of them but really it’s you see it with different eyes. You see what really you’ve been missing.
 
You walk through a park, sort of thing, and you’re worried about whether you’re going to get home on time to watch a programme on the television, and there’s a far better vista around you and you want to see what’s on television. But it’s, as I say, it’s an awakening but possibly a kick up the backside, it’s might be better described.
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.
 

Before having ovarian cancer she took life and material wealth for granted; she has now found...

Before having ovarian cancer she took life and material wealth for granted; she has now found...

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 50
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But things were starting to happen to me that weren’t necessarily physical, because I think as an individual it changed me a great deal. Yeah?
 
Yeah.
 
Up until then, basically, I’d had very good job, I had a successful business, a career, I had money in the bank, I could change my car every year if I wanted. I had all the material things that I thought life was about, basically. And physically up until then I had always been very fit and very well. So to a certain extent I suppose what I’d done is taken life very much for granted. And because I was forced to rest, because I didn’t through certain times have the energy to do very much more than just rest, it started me to think a whole lot more deeply about, I suppose, the meaning of life. And one of the things that happened was, my mum, who goes to the local church, got her Pastor to come and have a chat with me, and he would come once a week and we’d talk about all sorts of things, and I thought he might thrust religion down my throat, but he didn’t. He was just very kind and he listened, and one afternoon every week he would come along and we would spend some time together. 
 
And out of, I suppose out of gratitude for his visits to see me, I thought I might go along to his church, and I started to get involved in the group in the church. And I, you know, I started to view life very much differently. I mean apart from the obvious stuff like, you know, time, how much time do we have, and, you know, we are all going to die at some stage, which up until then I had very much ignored, sort of mortality and all that. And I think one of the hardest things that I had to get my head round was the fact that, you know, one of the things that is guaranteed for all of us is that we will die. And the other thing was realising that, you know, so many people are living, they’re alive, but it seemed to me they weren’t really living. And so the whole of that, for me, was turned completely upside down, and I recognised that every moment I had was of great value. And so things that, I mean even simple things, like when I used to walk the dogs, I would walk the dogs and think, ‘Right, got three quarters of an hour to walk the dogs’, but I was finding, probably because I hadn’t got the energy to do it at such a pace anyway, I was actually finding that, you know, I would walk the dogs and see things that I’d probably not noticed for years and years and years. And I know from people that I speak to that that does happen a lot with patients who are diagnosed with cancer. 
 
So my whole outlook on things started to gradually change, and I started to think, rather than, ‘How much do I want to work and what do I want to earn?’, I actually started to think, ‘Well, actually, how much do I need to earn and do I want to do that?’
 

After having both breast cancer and lymphoma she realises how important life is; she and her...

After having both breast cancer and lymphoma she realises how important life is; she and her...

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 45
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My husband runs his business interests from home. We have our two dogs, we walk the dogs, we enjoy life, we’re busy, but I now take time to do what I call ‘sniff the air’. And on a beautiful day like today you stop and you think, “Hey God, isn’t it good to be alive?” And that’s actually I think the difference is that now we take life as it comes, we enjoy life for what it is, which is something that so many people just don’t do. And if you ask me, you know, having had cancer twice, am I unlucky? I would say no, I’ve been incredibly lucky because it’s made us realise how important life is, and we enjoy it.  

 

After her breast cancer 8 years ago she had tried to make the most of each day but has since slid...

After her breast cancer 8 years ago she had tried to make the most of each day but has since slid...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 61
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Oh, no, I think I should be saying that I’m trying to make every day count, and there was that feeling early on but, being human, I’ve slid back into old routines and comfortable feelings that I never thought I would. But in a way I’m grateful for that. I didn’t think that would ever happen. I’ve become as sloppy as the next person.
 
Do you think that having had cancer has in any way changed your views on life at all?
 
Well, it’s bound to. It should have. I’m just very grateful to have survived this far, and you should really make the most of the present because you just don’t know what’s around the corner, but being human we don’t do that. We let things slide and we just go back to the same old habits, but there’s a part of you that’s still aware. 

 

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.
 

Sandra sees life differently since having breast cancer 7 years ago; she has taken early...

Sandra sees life differently since having breast cancer 7 years ago; she has taken early...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 50
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It certainly had an effect on my life. A massive, massive effect, not at the time, you know, not so much at the time as later, and how it’s affecting my life now is I see life very differently. Things that used to be important aren’t important any more. If I’ve got any spare time or spare money I have holidays. I do things, I enjoy my grandchildren. I don’t work anymore. I did keep working and then I took early retirement and I thought, “There’s more to life than work”. And so it did have a massive impact on my life but not at the time. 

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”.
 

Since being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia 6 years ago she no longer hesitates about...

Since being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia 6 years ago she no longer hesitates about...

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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How do you view your future?
 
How do I view my future? Well leukaemia’s been great actually because I’ve now got a new shop, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t had leukaemia. And any fear or reservations you have in life about doing things soon go because in case you don’t have the time to do it. So I’ve travelled far more. I hadn’t travelled very much before. I was brought up that you save up for everything and you do it later. There’s no later in my life now. If I want to do something I do it. I’ve met some amazing, fascinating people from across the world, really incredible, people that are prepared to push the boundaries, think outside the box. And I now act on my gut instinct rather than the sort of, ‘Oh well you shouldn’t do, or maybe it’s not right or…’. So long as I’m seeing my son through to his twenty-first birthday it’s been a good experience, and I really, really, really mean that. Once I got past the initial months of trips to the hospital and out of the NHS system I’ve got nothing bad to say about it. And I take care of myself now and I wouldn’t have done before, I would burn myself into the ground, I would never stop. I do stop now and you enjoy life so much more when you stop, you know, whether it’s the snow outside or the wind or the rain, those little things, the leaves falling. Things I didn’t notice before, I love. So it’s actually been quite good for me. 
 

After having lymphoma 5 years ago he and his family live for today and have spent more time...

After having lymphoma 5 years ago he and his family live for today and have spent more time...

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 38
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And we've had holidays where twice we've been, we've had holidays in America where we would've probably perhaps gone once and we would've gone for two weeks and we've been for three weeks, and we do more things and just everything about it. It's quite hard to describe it really, it's quite hard to sort of put it in words, but it stops you worrying about the silly little things that you might have worried about before, it makes you get on and live every day for today, it makes you, if you, you know, it sounds, I don't want it to sound as if you just go mad, but if you want something and you can afford it then you have it, you know, and you don't think twice about it really. And I'm not saying that people, you know, you can go mad and just start spending wildly, it's not that at all, but it does stop you worrying that much about perhaps some of the smaller decisions that you might have thought twice about before.

And both myself and my wife and my children we just live every day and we do more than we ever would have perhaps done before.

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”.
 

After having colorectal cancer 7 years ago Norma believes that life is for living; she has no...

After having colorectal cancer 7 years ago Norma believes that life is for living; she has no...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 61
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Do you think that having had cancer has changed any of your views on life or how you view your life nowadays?
 
Oh, yes, life is to live. You know, the amount of people that would say to me, “Eh, I bet you wanted to go here and wanted to go there”. I said, “No, I just wanted to live”. Because you do read about people who do this, and I have met other people who say that, “Oh, we went to America because I thought I wasn’t going to get there”. That didn’t interest me. I just wanted my life here to carry on. It’s my girls and the boys and my husband, and that’s all I needed. I don’t think it’s a selfish attitude. I think it was what kept me going anyhow. 
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.
 

Since having ovarian cancer 6 years ago she is able to put things in perspective and not worry...

Since having ovarian cancer 6 years ago she is able to put things in perspective and not worry...

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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I suppose cancer is something obviously which, you know, makes you focus on things in a different way, and therefore if I had a problem before that maybe vexed me a lot, and you do, I mean you do still have problems, you still do worry about things, and probably even worry about things that you know you shouldn't, but if they get too much you can draw the line now and say, "Right hold on a minute, this is not really that important", and so I think you can get things into perspective more where, you know, beforehand you would have let them maybe worry you too much.  

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.
 

Having had breast cancer she is now more empathetic towards other people who are having...

Having had breast cancer she is now more empathetic towards other people who are having...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 61
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 So in a way, something positive that’s come out of it.

 
Very. Very, very positive. Very positive in the way that I relate to people who have had any kind of great difficulty in their life. I feel a great feeling for them without being sloppy about it. I’m very much more aware of other people’s difficulties. I hope I’m helping somebody somewhere along the line but that’s how I feel about it. 
 
 

As well as other changes in her outlook since having cervical cancer she has become more laid...

As well as other changes in her outlook since having cervical cancer she has become more laid...

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 36
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But it does change your outlook on things, and many people say it and I know it sounds very corny, but when you, anybody that's faced with a potentially life threatening illness of any description, your priorities change radically, and I haven't yet come across anybody that doesn't say this is one form or another. Things that seemed important before, all of a sudden your priorities change and it was no longer of any real great importance if a red bill came in. You know, it was okay it will get done but let's not worry about this, this is not something to have a major flap about. It does, as I say, it sounds very corny but you begin to notice things, you begin to appreciate silly little things. I mean I noticed all sorts of weird and wonderful things from flowers and plants and trees and things to different people. And you do learn to appreciate, it's not learning, you suddenly do wake up to the fact that, hey actually this isn't too bad at all, there's some good stuff out there. And it’s a great eye opener, it's very, very strange. I don't think I was ever an impatient person before, but I did become very patient. I mean I don't, once I'd sort of got over my snappy period I did become almost too laid back for my own good I suppose in some respects, very tolerant of some things that some people would just not have tolerance with. Certain elements of things, I don't know, it might sound like a religious experience, it’s not a religious experience, I've never been a religious person as such, I've never particularly followed any particular religion, and I mean my family were sort of Church of England and so on, I mean but I've never followed anything, so it's not a religious experience, I didn't suddenly have that sort of enlightenment. And I would like to think that I'm a spiritual person, which is I feel on a different level but, you know, it's not that sort of thing, but it's just different priorities and different ways of looking at things. And sometimes I see people running around like headless chickens, and thinking why, why are you doing that? You don't have to do that. But they have to find their own way.  

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.
 

Surviving breast cancer made Glynis discover that she was mentally stronger than she had thought;...

Surviving breast cancer made Glynis discover that she was mentally stronger than she had thought;...

Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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Perhaps something good might have come out of it, aspects of it.
 
Yeah, because it’s brought me closer together, closer to certain members of the family and to friends, certain friends and I suppose, actually, I found out that I’m stronger than I thought I was mentally, which is, I’ve never been a particularly self-confident, out-going person, but I do feel, to a certain extent, proud of how I’ve coped with it because I didn’t go to pieces. I just kind of took a deep breath and got on with it, and it was a frightening thing. So I suppose in a way I’m quite proud of, learnt that I’m stronger than I thought I was. Not necessarily physically, but mentally I dealt with and I dealt with it better than… I’ve a friend who lost a son to cancer and, you know, you just think, “Thank God it’s me”. I’d much rather have gone through it than watch somebody I loved go through it. I couldn’t have, I don’t know how I’d cope with that, so of any age. I just would find it very hard, whereas to be doing it myself was a challenge and I, you know, with a lot of help I got through it and I do feel, I’ve learnt, yeah, I’ve learnt that I was stronger mentally than I thought I was. And spiritually, I’m glad to say that I’ve, you know, I did feel closer to God, which is something that you’ve always got even if you can’t always feel that closeness, you know that you’ve had that experience, which is fantastic.
 

Since having ovarian cancer she is more likely to get involved in doing things that she might not...

Since having ovarian cancer she is more likely to get involved in doing things that she might not...

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 35
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Oh, have you changed your life style at all as a result of your illness?
 
With two young children it’s difficult. Working full time it’s also difficult. You have restrictions that are in-built there, I do try and take more time for myself but that’s hard. I do try not to worry so much, but sometimes that’s difficult, but I think I do achieve that most of the time. I do try and fill every moment of every day, I don’t like to waste time now, I value every minute that I have. I do rest more than I used to. When I’m tired I just go to bed, I probably would have soldiered on and been up to all hours trying to do things, I don’t do that anymore. But I can’t say that I’ve got any major life changes. 
 
I think my personality’s changed. I certainly wouldn’t have been doing something like this before. I wouldn’t have got involved with support groups before. I certainly wouldn’t have been involved with anything that involved me speaking in public, like a committee. I’m more inclined to do things that are suggested to me, previously I would have tried to weigh up all the pros and cons, but I’m a bit more inclined to give it a go now. But I can’t think of anything major.
 

After surviving testicular cancer he feels less inhibited about talking openly about things that...

After surviving testicular cancer he feels less inhibited about talking openly about things that...

Age at interview: 32
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 27
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I think from a male point of view it almost makes you a better person because I think men in many respects don't tend to talk to other people openly, other men, other whoever, and discussion can be a little bit sort of, I don't know, just talk about the weather or the sport or whatever, and not really talk to people, whereas after an illness that sort of thing becomes less important and proper friendships and relationships with your close family and friends become more important in your life. You're less afraid to open up and talk about things.

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.
 

She is grateful for the new relationships she has developed with people she met through her...

She is grateful for the new relationships she has developed with people she met through her...

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 61
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 I’m so grateful for having met the people that I’ve met and are involved with and the team that was at the [cancer support centre]. I’m now involved with them in a supportive kind of way, that I think it’s brought that benefit. I can’t say I wouldn’t have missed it. I would have hoped that we would have all met in some other way, but it’s been very important in shaping the rest of my life in a good way. It’s brought benefits, to be quite honest, that might not have come any other way. I don’t know about that, but I’m so grateful for how things have turned out. I’ve made some great relationships and met some life-giving people, that I can only be grateful for it.




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​Last reviewed October 2018.
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