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The Transformative Power of Cancer

by Meme Hieneman, PhD

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My friends and family say I have changed since I was diagnosed with cancer, that now I am often unpredictable. And they are right. Cancer has caused me to question all that I thought I believed and wanted. My moods vary from peaceful to irritable, ecstatic to depressed. I am mediating an ongoing conflict between who I was before, who I am now, and who I ultimately hope to be.

Cancer has become such a prominent part of my life that I am often overwhelmed and resentful. When I was first diagnosed, I was thunderstruck with grief. I experienced shock and deep, raw emotional pain. I thought about death and considered what scared me most. I realized that I wasn’t frightened of the pain I might endure. The thing that scared me most was hurting the people I loved.

Before cancer, I often focused on the past or the future and regularly missed the now.

I tried to embrace the deeper lessons cancer could provide. I came to recognize that cancer was just another thing I must do. It was part of my destiny. I could either grow from my experience or continue to be its victim. I could share what I learned or become self-absorbed and withdraw from life. I chose to embrace my experience.

Don’t get me wrong; I have not been perfect. I’ve had plenty of pity parties and anger, but overall I have tried to walk this path with grace. Before cancer, I often focused on the past or the future and regularly missed the now. Precious moments were lost in the noise. Now I take time to enjoy each day and accept things as they are. I am finally present.

Before cancer, I questioned how other people felt about me. I thought I could only be appreciated for what I was contributing, and not for who I was. Now I realize that I am surrounded by love, that the people close to me think I am wonderful – even with all my faults.

Before cancer, I was afraid of losing control. I thought I had to plan every moment and do everything just right. I worried about how others would judge me if I failed. Now I know that the only thing I can control is me. What happens, happens, but I determine how I interpret and react to situations in life.

Cancer will probably always be a part of my life. It will continue to be a gift if I can hold on to the lessons I have learned – living in the moment, loving deeply and unconditionally, and appreciating what I have. I am on my way to being a more complete person. As I go through this transition, I know I will have highs and lows. I hope that the people who love me will accompany me on my journey, no longer grieving the loss of the person I once was, but celebrating in my rebirth.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Meme Hieneman lives in Palm Harbor, FL, with her husband and two sons. She directs a research project at the University of South Florida and is the author of three books and numerous articles on positive approaches to behavioral intervention. At 42 years old, she is being treated for breast cancer for the second time.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2009.