The upside of cancer: A new outlook on life

cancer survivorThough cancer can be a harrowing experience, a growing body of research suggests that the disease also changes many people's lives for the better.

Nearly two out of three cancer survivors and their families say something good has come out of their experience, according to a new poll from USA TODAY/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health. This part of the telephone survey, part of a larger study in August and September, included 751 adults who had cancer in the past five years or who have shared a household with a cancer patient who is still living. The margin of error for this part of the poll is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

About half of respondents say cancer fundamentally changed their outlook on life — almost always in a positive way, the survey shows.

Cancer gives some survivors a renewed sense of confidence and greater appreciation for their own endurance, says Patricia Ganz, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Schools of Medicine and Public Health. "The adversity of treatment may give people the sense that 'I've come through this and I'm stronger,' " Ganz says.

Cancer also often leads survivors to question their priorities, Ganz says.

Steve Gorski of Milwaukee, who was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal kidney tumor two years ago, says cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him — even though it caused tremendous hardship. Gorski, 41, says cancer prompted one especially wonderful change: He is now a full-time caregiver for his sons, Jack, 5, and Steven, 2. "There are life lessons for me to teach them every day," Gorski says. "For every bad thing that happened because of cancer, two good things happened."

Many survivors find that the coping strategies they develop during cancer therapy help them handle other problems in life, Ganz says. That could explain why older cancer patients often feel less distraught than young people, she says. Older people may have already learned how to weather other types of crises, such as the loss of loved ones.

Cancer often presents more of a crisis to younger people who had planned on many more decades of good health, says Diane Blum, executive director of CancerCare, which provides support to cancer patients and families. The shock causes many young adults to re-examine their lives and values. The new survey found that 69% of respondents 18 to 49 said cancer changed their outlook. Only 36% of those over 65 said cancer changed their view of the world.

Like Gorski, who has become involved with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, many cancer survivors and their families feel a strong desire to help others dealing with the disease.

"It's part of the healing process to give back," says Gigi McMillan of Manhattan Beach, Calif., who started a support group after her son developed a malignant brain tumor. Families "come to us for healing. Then they become the volunteers who help the next family."

For cancer survivors and their loved ones, volunteering is about more than good deeds, McMillan says. Her group, the We Can Pediatric Brain Tumor Network, matches the families of newly diagnosed children with "veterans" who have been through treatment. Many use volunteer work to transform traumatic experiences into something positive. "They don't want all the pain they've gone through to be in vain," says McMillan, whose son, now 17, still has cancer-related disabilities. "They're helpless against the disease, but they can help other people."

Bart Frazzitta, 64, of Manalapan, N.J., says he wishes he had known someone to guide him through esophageal cancer in 1999. Today, he gives patients the support that he never had. Since 2002, he has talked to 500 patients at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he was treated. He also helped the hospital develop a book and CD-ROM on esophageal cancer, which are given to every new patient.

"The doctors say, 'When you come into the room, you don't have to say a word, because they look at you and see there is light at the end of the tunnel,' " Frazzitta says.

Some patients prefer to move on after a cancer diagnosis. Susan Arena, 54, of North Babylon, N.Y., says she prefers not to think too deeply about her disease: inflammatory breast cancer that has spread to her brain, bone and lungs. Medication that was supposed to strengthen her bones has instead destroyed the bones in her jaw, causing her to lose her teeth.

"I try not to focus on, 'What if I don't get up tomorrow?' " Arena says. "I try to roll with the punches, and I'm getting a lot of punches lately."

Though research shows that optimistic patients are no more likely to survive than pessimists, a hopeful attitude can improve quality of life, says Vicki Kennedy, vice president of quality assurance and programs at The Wellness Community, which offers support for cancer patients and caregivers.

Andrew Colletti of Springfield, Va., who was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia five years ago, says he wondered whether to even pursue the recommended treatment: chemotherapy followed by a bone-marrow transplant, one of the harshest treatments in all of medicine. It left Colletti, 45, unable to father children.

Yet cancer, in some ways, has been a blessing, says Colletti, who adopted a baby two years ago with his wife, Susan. He says he now can't imagine life without daughter Charlotte. "If I had known this little girl was waiting for us on the other side of treatment, I wouldn't have had a doubt."

source - USA Today 


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