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10 Things I Learned from People Who Survive Cancer

December 28, 2011
By Lissa Rankin MD
|46Comments|


When I interviewed women who had survived breast cancer for my art project The Woman Inside, I noticed that they all had one remarkable thing in common.

They had all faced down death and decided to live every day like it might be their last. And then they all beat cancer.

The more interviews I did, the more I noticed that these women were living differently than most of the people I knew who had not been diagnosed with cancer. Here’s what I learned from those survivor women. Learning these lessons changed my life, and I hope they’ll change yours.

1. Be unapologetically YOU. People who survive cancer get feisty. They walk around bald in shopping malls and roll their eyes if people look at them funny. They say what they think. They laugh often. They don’t make excuses. They wear purple muumuus when they want to.

2. Don’t take shit from people. People who survive cancer stop trying to please everybody. They give up caring what everybody else thinks. If you might die in a year anyway (and every single one of us could), who gives a flip if your great aunt Gertrude is going to cut you out of her will unless you kiss her ass?

3. Learn to say no. People with cancer say no when they don’t feel like going to the gala. They avoid gatherings when they’d prefer to be alone. They don’t let themselves get pressured into doing things they really don’t want to do.

4. Get angry. Then get over it. People who survive cancer get in your face. They question you. They feel their anger. They refuse to be doormats. They demand respect. They feel it. Then they forgive. They let go. They surrender. They don’t stay pissed. They release resentment.

5. Don’t obsess about beauty. People who survive cancer no longer worry about whether they have perfect hair, whether their makeup looks spotless, or whether their boobs are perky enough. They’re happy just to have boobs (if they still do). They’re happy to be alive in their skin, even if it’s wrinkled.

6. Do it now. Stop deferring happiness. People who survive cancer realize that you can’t wait until you kick the bucket to do what you’re dying to do. Quit that soul-sucking job now. Leave that deadbeat husband. Prioritize joy. They live like they mean it.

7. Say “I love you” often. People who survive cancer leave no words left unspoken. You never know when your time is up. Don’t risk having someone you love not know it.

8. Take care of your body. People who survive cancer have a whole new appreciation for health. Those who haven’t been there may take it for granted. So stop smoking. Eat healthy. Drink in moderation. Maintain a healthy weight. Avoid putting toxic poisons in your God pod. Get enough sleep.

9. Prioritize freedom. People who survive cancer know that being a workaholic isn’t the answer. Money can’t buy health. Security doesn’t matter if you’re six feet under. Sixteen hours a day of being a stress monster is only going to make you sick. As Tim Ferriss writes in “The 4-Hour Workweek,” “Gold is getting old. The New Rich are those who abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility.”

10. Take risks. People who survive cancer have faced their fear and told it to go to hell. They know life is for living. Fear is powerless. And joy lies in taking risks. So go skydiving if you want. Bungee jump. Hang glide. Spend your savings. Live like you might die tomorrow.

Are you doing these things? Or are you waiting for cancer to test out how much you want to live?

Don’t wait for cancer, my love. Don’t tempt the universe that way.

Be brave enough to live now.

For more on how to optimize your life, visit owningpink.com.

Photo credit: .imelda



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46 responses to 10 Things I Learned from People Who Survive Cancer
  1. What a wonderful post to start my morning. It took a cancer diagnosis for me to learn these things, but I am delighted to say that the folks around me are learning them without their own personal diagnosis! Thanks for putting it so succinctly, I’m going to send this post to all those I love as food for thought as we move towards the New Year (and resolutions!).

  2. I sure needed this to reinforce yesterday’s aggressiveness towards the medical profession. Need hyperbaric oxygen therapy to heal late effects of radiation treatment. Asserted myself in a big way yesterday and annoyed the tech, the doctor, and the program director by simply refusing to accept 60 appointments in the middle of my workday AND having the gall demand statistical evidence of treatment success. Get a life medical team. I said no, got angry, prioritized me and am taking a risk by investigating a new facility today. On top of that I allowed myself to finally have a huge cry in the face of this setback.

    Whew! Felt good to vent that to some folks who can relate!

    db

  3. Thank you for the highlight of my day! I woke to this and so often try to convince my friends and family just the same thing! I was diagnosed with brain cancer nearly 3 years ago and have been fighting tooth and nail since. My life is just simple, daily: live strong, make memories, love endless moments, and “who cares!”, who cares meaning that the bad driver won’t piss me off and the little mess won’t keep me up late! Life is so short; having a 3 year old son, a 6 month life span… Life is surely put in to perspective!

  4. This kicks so much ASS!! Thank you very much! :)

  5. Thank Kris for sharing these- i’ve been following your blog and your wonderful book. I am still struggling in been consistent in leaving a healthier life but you inspired to get back into the wagon…this post is a good reminder and what a better time to start living life than now.

  6. Ladies, you are amazing beyond words and in depths that are just remarkable. This truly is the best post written.. for all women. Your journey is humbling and simply spiritually transforming for all those around you. May we all live and view life as women who value each day as deeply and heavenly as all of you!

  7. Thank you all for the sweet comments! And thank you Kris for inspiring all of us to live like you mean it.
    Much love
    Lissa

  8. Apart from NOT spending what little savings I have, I have pretty much adopted all the other nine suggestions . . . . too bad it takes a cancer diagnosis for many of us to wake up and make the positive changes in our lives.

    Everybody dies, but not everybody lives. . . . so let’s start some REAL LIVING!

  9. Great message, Lissa! As a holistic anxiety coach, this content is great for my clients/audience, as well because it teaches us not to sweat the small stuff and get out of our own heads!

  10. I love this article! Funny how it all works. I am at my 4th chemo treatment now reading this! This is so spot on. I forget to do some of these actions sometimes! Thank you for sharing this.

  11. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! I have been in a serious slump/ roller coaster/ sky dive/ freak out since my diagnosis a couple of weeks ago. I have been freaking this morning about the bone marrow biopsy I know is in my future. But this post saved me from my whining and complaining. I forget and get lost in the drama…but I am alive. I am breathing. I am loved, I have hope, and I refuse to be afraid.

  12. Thank you for taking the time to put this wonderful information together is such an inspiring way. I am putting this on my wall. Prioritize Joy… what a motto!

  13. Oh, thank you! Although my illness wasn’t cancer, these are exactly the lessons I learned and exactly how I’ve been living. I am amazed at how spot on this is- straight out of my heart and onto the page. I recently gave some of my sass away because a few people around me weren’t into it. This was just the inspirational kick in the pants I needed to re-claim what I’ve been given. Thank you, Lissa!

  14. After spending 2 solid years dealing with cancer I am happy to say I am feeling better and cancer free. My kids (3 and 6 at diagnosis) went through it with me. When I was given the chance to visit Greece this summer I decided to take the trip of a lifetime. I took my kids (now 6 and 9) to places I thought I would never get to take them. We climbed to the top of the Acropolis, frolicked in the Agean Sea kayaking and playing with baby octupi. We crossed the Meditaranean and ate pizza in Italy, looked down into the Colloseum, ate Gelato in Rome, looked up at the Ceieling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, slept on a train to Paris,climbed to top of the Eiffel Tower (in the rain), ate real French chocolate croisants EVERY DAY in Paris, was face to face with the Mona Lisa, took the Glacier Express through Switzerland, ziplined in the Alps with a view of the Matterhorn, got misted by Rhine Falls and on a separate trip we hike ALL THE WAY to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. THEN we stood under the dome of the Capital builiding in DC, saw the National Christmas tree and ice skated in Central Park in NYC after gazing up at Lady Liberty. What a year it has been. Life has surely changed since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37. I realize just how short life can be and want to cram it with as many adventures I can. My boys ALMOST didn’t have a momma and I appreciate so much that I am still here and want to enjoy LIVING as much as I possibly can.

  15. After spending 2 solid years dealing with cancer I am happy to say I am feeling better and cancer free. My kids (3 and 6 at diagnosis) went through it with me. When I was given the chance to visit Greece this summer I decided to take the trip of a lifetime. I took my kids (now 6 and 9) to places I thought I would never get to take them (probably never would have made the time). We climbed to the top of the Acropolis, frolicked in the Agean Sea kayaking and playing with baby octupi. We crossed the Mediterranean and ate pizza in Italy, looked down into the Colosseum, ate Gelato in Rome, looked up at the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, slept on a train to Paris,climbed to top of the Eiffel Tower (in the rain), ate real French chocolate croissants EVERY DAY in Paris, was face to face with the Mona Lisa, took the Glacier Express through Switzerland, ziplined in the Alps with a view of the Matterhorn, got misted by Rhine Falls and on a separate trip we hike ALL THE WAY to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, slept next the Colorado River for two nights and then hiked back. THEN we stood under the dome of the Capital builiding in DC, saw the National Christmas tree and ice skated in Central Park in NYC after gazing up at Lady Liberty. What a year it has been. Life has surely changed since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37. I realize just how short life can be and want to cram it with as many adventures I can. My boys ALMOST didn’t have a momma and I appreciate so much that I am still here and want to enjoy LIVING as much as I possibly can.

  16. Thanks Kris. I am three time survivor myself and my personal faves are take risks and do it now. We only have one life to live!

  17. Thank you for this! I have my 3rd chemo treatment tomorrow & agree with everything that you said! Time to reprioritize, let go, & LIVE life :))!!

  18. This is good advice for everyone, including those who merely KNOW someone with cancer, and we all do.

  19. I think this is a useful article. Certainly my observations that people who survive cancer and do not relapse actually do ALL of these things. While other very stressful events (eg long term relationship break ups.) will see many of these changes, most likely not all. Maybe we should approach all life threatening situations with this list?

  20. My wife just finished her last radiation treatment, the first two rules were her pre cancer. It’s(cancer) has changed both of us for the better.
    Oh, I think she’s sexier than ever.

  21. I believe that cancer may have just saved my life. I was having trouble with alclohol again, wasn’t eating right, and spending way too much time with my job at USPS. It doesn’t bother me to say NO, now. Don’t even think of taking a drink, and work is not my life. Cancer does change you. I’m probably more healthy now than I’ve been in years. It’s just too bad it took this to make me look at my life for the first time in my 60 years.

  22. I need to learn all of these things …… by heart!! What a maevelous post! Where can I find the book & a Copy of these TEN lESSONS???

  23. Thank you all for your sweetness!

    And Jackie, my next book is called Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House 2013) but this list won’t be in it. I wrote this just for you all :) Though many other self-healing techniques will be laid out there!
    Much love
    Lissa

  24. We spend so much time accumulating things we don’t need for a future we are not guaranteed..I have decided to live life to the max right now and not wait for manyana(tomorrow)..

  25. I would say that even before I had cancer that I had in the most part lived my life this way ,, since living with cancer I definitely live my life almost entirely this way (I think my husband would have a massive heart attack if I spent every penny we have) lol Even being diagnosed as terminal has only made me stronger in living.

  26. Wow! This is just what I needed this week….Took number 9 to heart, worked through all my treatments with only taking a few days off every other week. I was a school librarian the kids where part of my support team….in June of 2010 I retired with 31 years of teaching…now I say No when I want to anything…If I want to stay in my recliner all day because I need the rest I do….this list is so awesome..Thank You!

  27. My father has terminal lung cancer and i absolutely love this and you know even though dad is not cancer free- he has a great support system and I shared this on facebook to all friends and family–great post!

  28. Thank you. This article and these comments have inspired me (hopefully) on the road to personal healing. I’ve allowed those around me to influence me for too long. I’ve felt ashamed for having cancer for too long. I’ve apologized to those around me for not being able to do and be all I used to for too long. I’ve allowed others to walk all over me without speaking out for I’ve felt less than worthy and thought perhaps they were right. I’ve suffered in silence for too long.

  29. As a cancer survivor, I completely relate to all these findings,except 5..I still want to be HOT ;) Whenever I start to slip into my old pre-cancer taking it all forgranted attitude, I remember that these days are not guaranteed! I remember hoping for just 2 more years (I’m past that!) Enjoy these days and everyone you love!! I hate that I had to find out I might be dying to start living but thats what it took and I’m glad to be here.

  30. What a fantastic article! My mom has survived cancer twice and I would conquer, she is ALL these things. Thanks for turning them into tangible ideas. Love.

  31. This is wonderful…yes, breast ca has definitely changed my life. This last year was very hard – surgery, chemo, radiation, but having all my friends and family around me was incredible and I felt very loved. I agree with all your 10 things that change your life listed above. I also want to encourange everyone, no matter what life throws at you YOU CAN DO IT…….and of course GET ER DONE…..absorb your diagnosis and take care of what you need to do to get it done. Don’t wait or procrastinate….just do it and move on. Wonderful article. Thank you!

  32. My friend Lisa loved these articles, she fought hard and when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer it was her second breast cancer, she decided to get her nursing licence. She did wonderful,ate healthy, I tried to get her to juice but couldn’t !! she graduated and was an RN for only 5 months. She just passed 2 weeks ago but her children and husband are so proud. Thank you Kris, we loved you and your book and updates. It kept her strong and fighting.

  33. Have any of you read Knockout. You should if you haven’t just so you will know your options. praying for all of you. you are amazing and very strong people. :)

  34. Had my first at 41 then second at 60. My daughter got it this year too at 36. We both have the btc2 gene as well as my two sisters. So we all had double mastectomies this year. It’s hard to believe all this happened in the passed 12 months. My daughter told me about this site and I go to it often. Thanks for the support,life is good just look around you at all the beauty.

  35. love seeing comments from others. I find that looking good makes me feel good, so I don’t agree with #5 on the list. looking droopy drags me down. even walking the dog I want to look nice (for me).
    Had neck dissection 3 years ago, cancer was contained, all clear. PTL. Exercise, swimming laps and weights and stretching every day so important, even when I don’t feel like it. Rest when I need to, let things not important go. Volunteer at cancer thrift shop with others.
    thanks you all for sharing. God has been good to me and I thank Him for it.

  36. I don’t agree with #5. I want to look good for myself. When I look good I feel good.
    God has been good to me. 3 years neck cancer free. Exercise is so important even
    when I’m tired and don’t want to. Bless you all for sharing.

  37. I WOULD LOVE TO SHARE THIS ON MY BLOG PINK LEMONADE AND ANYONE ELSE THAT HAS SOME INSIGHT OF THERE OWN TO SHARE PLEASE LOG ON AND COMMENT..YEAH SURVIVORS…. MY BOOK “BALD SWEATY BITCH WITH ONE TIT” A MEMOIR OF A PINK RIBBON JOURNEY, IS MY STORY FIGHTING BREAST CANCER AND FIGHTING BACK…XOXO
    http://janekaycisneros.blogspot.com/

  38. Five years have passed since my original diagnosis and a double mastectomy. Reading this article and the posts have transported me back to life altering changes that I made as a result of cancer. You can embrace it as a gift for how to proceed with life or give up and wallow in your misery. I now know that I am alive physically and spiritually only because of having come to a full stop facing an unknown future.

  39. Always love life and always be prepared to let it go.

  40. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t feel sick or anything, but yet after many tests it was true maligment tumor was in my breast and had to come out. I ended up having a lumpectomy within a week. They removed the lump and checked the lymphnodes. Luckily for me, the nodes were not affected. On January 9 th I have to see a oncologyst to find out what course of treatment i have to have. Everything is happening so fast. I still don’t feel sick, and breast is healing very nicely. Thank you Dr. Kolyn for the great job. I’ts just like you said, I do live my life now with lots of laughter, and a lot of attitude. BRING IT !!!!!!

  41. Loving this. When I was done with treatment I quit my corporate sales job, left America and went to live at an orphanage in Kenya. I was so sick of hearing and living cancer that I totally had to get out of myself and give back. The kids were great and it totally put cancer in perspective. And check it out, while I was there I climbed Kilimanjaro, went to Egypt after the revolution and went white water rafting in the Nile. I figured if you get a do over, DO IT BIG!!!!!

    So now, I’m working on getting published. Check it out. http://www.pubslush.com/book/view/126. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

  42. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 43. “Scared to death” doesn’t even come close to how I was feeling when the diagnosis was confirmed. ………..but here I am, almost 6 years later, and living my life as if each day were my last. Some people might not understand that, but, for those of us who have been dealt this hand,….we do. I chose to embrace my cancer as a gift, which in turn, allowed me to renew and strengthen my faith in God……because, “He” had a plan for me. I thank him everyday……….so, to all of you wonderful women and men, who have been through it, or are going through it…..LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST!!!! ………sing like no one is listening, dance like no one is watching,……and live life with no regrets!!!!!! I’ve learned that in the last 5 years,…..I can’t change the past,…..but I certainly can, the future. If anyone would like to contact me with any questions or concerns, or just to talk, or if I can help in any way, please do so,….I’ll be here for you.

  43. I’m sister to Charmaine Henry Burroughs – Jan 4 Comment – I was diagnosed in 2008 with level 2 stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma in my left breast. Segmental incision and removal of 11 eleven lymph nodes, 6 months of Chemotherapy, 25 Radiation treatments finished up in October 2008. I was on tamoxifen for a couple of years and then onto Letrozole for 3 years. Two years left of the Letrozole. So far so good. Still doing blood work every 3 months, mammograms every year, bone scans, xrays etc… All any of us really have is this moment. I’ve learned to be present, to be positive and live in the now. I practice and attitude of gratitude all the time. Gratitude makes life more full, it brings me peace. I’m thankful for everything I have. At this moment in time in this place that I am I have all that I want and want all that I have. :) Loving life. “When the dog is chasing you; turn around and whistle for it”

  44. As a mother, wife and breast cancer survivor, thank you for sharing this post. I couldn’t agree with it more. I am a psychotherapist who provides counseling services to women and men who have been newly diagnosed with cancer and post treatment patients. I’m holding a Restorative and Renewal Cancer Retreat for women who have been diagnosed with cancer, currently receiving treatment and . The focus is to empower women who are experiencing personal struggles as a result of cancer.
    Here’s to life!

  45. I just can’t get enough of this post. I’ve read it 3 times now and each time I realize I need to do better at one of the 10 things. I think it should be something people revisit monthly. We don’t all need to get cancer to start doing these things.

    P.S. I love the phrase, “God Pod”. It’s awesome!