Skip to content

20 Things I Learned When Diagnosed with Cancer

Life is precious. So are these invaluable insights.

The meaning of life only ever fully comes into focus after a brush with death. That's why the Remedy talked to survivors who faced their mortality head on after a cancer diagnosis. What they learned will give you a whole new outlook on life.


It Gave Me An Instant Perspective

Happy guys in casual hugging each other.

"Cancer gives you instant perspective. I'm a pretty empathetic person to begin with, but it just reinforces the idea in my mind that you really have no idea what someone next to you is going through."—Jackie, New York, NY, Rectal Cancer 


Control is Largely an Illusion

Silhouette of a woman jumping, starry night background

"One of the biggest lessons was of the mind. I had to confront my type-A tendencies head on after realizing how unhealthy my mindset had been. I grew up a control freak—obsessed with getting things exactly the way I'd envisioned—and cancer forced me to let go. It taught me that control is largely an illusion. Then there was the foray into a different kind of spirituality, learning how to introspect and learn to move away from wanting external validation to trusting myself and my instinct. The only way to solve the issues—both mental and spiritual—was through patience, something I've lacked my whole life. I had to learn how to sit still. I had to learn how to live in the present."—Stephanie, 34, San Francisco, CA, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (Stage 3) 


How Strong My Faith Is

A tourist girl looking mountain landscape at the sunset time

 "I just think this whole experience has really shown me how strong my faith in God is. I didn't know it was that strong, but I just believe that my body is healed and I'm gonna be healed and this experience has really been for me to share with other people just to raise awareness."—Maurissa, 56, Los Angeles, CA, Ovarian Cancer


Asking For Help Doesn't Make You Weak

Close-up of psychiatrist hands together holding palm of her patient

 "Chemo sucked, surgery sucked, physical therapy sucks, but the mental stuff is so much worse in my opinion. There are lots of people who have gone through the same thing. Talking to someone or getting on a medication to help you for a while doesn't make you a lesser person or weak."—Steve, 26, Brisbane, Australia, Testicular Cancer 


Don't Deny Yourself Therapy

Top view on difficult youth talking to a therapist while sitting in a circle during meeting

"The effects both emotionally and physically last forever; it's not over when all the treatments are over, or even years later.  It's not talked about. So I've learned it's so important to not try and deny that, to get therapy at any time you feel you need it, to not feel guilty for still feeling sad, or angry or scared."—Nanette, 51, Austin, TX, Breast Cancer


Your Outfits Can Communicate Your Mood

woman wearing mantra scarf in the city with breast cancer awareness

"I found that when I was in treatment, when I wore colors vs black or gray, people/friends/family reacted better to the situation, thereby being able to offer me what I needed. Colors almost functioned as an open door. I am sure that the colors communicated hope and then with this opening the positive energy came in and provided support. It was like a real circle of communication but on a non-verbal level."—Gari, 63, Philadelphia, PA, Breast Cancer


Let Others Love and Help You

A woman with cancer is sitting in a wheelchair

"I had to stop everything I was doing and let people who loved me help me. Stopping forced me to take a look at my life and discover my superpower—my purpose in life—the reason for getting out of bed in the morning."—Kara, 46, Riverside, CA, Breast Cancer


You Can Love Yourself the Way You Are

Beautiful woman with a headscarf looking on mirror

"I learned to love my body as it was. I remember seeing my body in the mirror soon after being diagnosed. I felt like a fool for not appreciating my body. Instead of picking on my thighs, I showed them gratitude for everything they have done for me. If there was ever a time that my body needed extra love, now was it. Learning to love my breasts after surgery helped me heal the physical scars as well as the mental scars cancer left behind." —Christine, 51, Bayport, NY, Breast Cancer


It Highlights What Truly Matters to You

happy family spending time together

"Anyone can be diagnosed with cancer … The really important things in life rise to the top and the rest fall by the wayside. It was really important for me to rest and heal after treatments. Any energy that I had left was spent with my family." —Christine


Stay Off the Interwebs

Male Patient Being Reassured By Doctor In Hospital Room

"Don't research your condition online. It will only make you panic and add to the confusion …  If you have questions or concerns, don't be afraid to be vocal with your doctors and ask for second or third opinions—just not from the Internet."—Sabrina, 31, Acute Myeloid Leukemia


You Look the Way You Feel

Portrait of a bald woman in a living room in a cozy house in the morning.

"I learned very soon after my diagnosis that the way you look has a tremendous impact on how you feel. When I 'looked' like a cancer patient, I felt emotionally and physically sicker than I really was. When I began to take care of myself and looked more like my usual self rather than a patient, I instantly felt more energetic and optimistic. My advice to anyone who's going through cancer treatment are the following: wear your own clothes if you can for any lengthy hospital stays, keep up with good personal hygiene practices, and use makeup when needed. When you look good, you really do feel better."—Sabrina


You Have Heavy Medical Decisions to Make

Tourist in squatting position on peak of sandstone rock and watching into colorful mist and fog in morning valley

"When you land into cancer, you often have to make tough decisions about cancer treatment when you have no idea what's going on and there are pros and cons for every option. Ask the tough questions, seek different perspectives and make hard decisions because no one knows you the way you know yourself."—Joe, Melbourne, Australia, Testicular Cancer


Communicate to Your Support System

Cheerful diverse people huddling in the park

"Most people in your life want to support you, but they have no idea how … An email that clearly spells out where you're at and what specific things you want (or don't want) them to do will make it easy for your friends and family to be there for you."—Joe


When You're Prepared, You Are in Control

female hands with pen writing on notebook on grass outside

"With cancer, there's so much going on that it's easy to miss some crucial detail, or forget to ask an important question. Here's something that can help —keep a log of your aches, pains and worries (even if just notes in your phone) and write down questions you need answers to. This way, when go to see your specialist, you don't have to think on the spot or worry you'll miss out on something important."—Joe


Hope Is Stronger Than Fear

Purple flower growing on crack street

"With or without cancer, we can never predict what will happen—but we can only hope that things will get better, we can only hope that there a brighter tomorrow because hope is the only thing stronger than fear."—Joe


It Can Test Marriages

Supportive husband kissing his wife, cancer patient, after treatment in hospital

"I hate to hear people's assumptions that because you've been through cancer and you're married that you must have the strongest marriage. In theory, saying you're better off after having gone through it together sounds nice, but it was extremely difficult. My husband is a very level-headed and kind caregiver. This whole experience forced him to imagine me not being around, and that caused a lot of depression and anxiety for both of us."—Kristine, 36, Columbus, OH, Cervical cancer


Pick the Right Team

Cancer patient visiting doctor for medical consultation in clini

"I had to switch doctors to find the right fit. That is incredibly important for anybody that's going through this journey—you have to be your own advocate, you have to ask questions, you have to be prepared because this journey is difficult and doctors have that effect on people where you have all these questions and you forget what you need to add."—Greg, 38, Waretown, NJ, Thyroid cancer 


It Puts Everything in Perspective

Beautiful view of young woman swing on the top of the mountain

"It all sounds cliche, but I live every day to the fullest and appreciate every day. It sounds silly, but it's true. I don't really sweat the small stuff as much. If I come across a new experience or something that's hard, I think, 'I don't have cancer. It's not gonna put me in the hospital,' and I feel better. Things aren't as big of a deal."—Christine, 36, Washington DC, Leukemia (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia)


I'm More Outspoken

Patient standing and telling her problems to therapy group

"I use my time more wisely than I did before. I have a unique experience and perspective on things, so I use that more than I did before. If I can use what I went through to help someone else, that's great. I wasn't really an outgoing person before, and I feel like I'm way more outgoing and talkative now. I share more personal things than I did before. I realized how little I knew about leukemia and cancer in general, and after connecting with people, I've been able to meet a lot of people. Nobody really talks about it, so I decided to be open about my stuff. You can make so many connections with people by being vulnerable and real."—Christine


Layer Up!

Businessman reading a newspaper and leaning on the frame of a door

Here's a pro tip that's helpful for everyone to know, cancer or no cancer: "Wearing one gown in the hospital doesn't work. Grab a second gown to wear in the opposite direction to protect yourself from the draft."—Eric, Millersburg, PA, Anaplastic Grade III Ependymoma.

And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.

Emilia Paluszek
Emilia specializes in human biology and psychology at the University at Albany. Read more about Emilia