After Cancer Diagnosis, Finding New Perspective

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

OCTOBER 09, 2023

The seventeenth-century Japanese poet and samurai Mizuta Masahide wrote the following Haiku after watching his barn burn down.

My barn's burned down
Now I can see the moon
Mizuta Masahide

It is easy to understand this lovely little poem and to appreciate the metaphor. It is much more difficult to mourn our previous good health and pre-cancer lives and to move forward with strength and grace. I hate it when anyone suggests that cancer has been a gift in their lives, and I certainly have never experienced that feeling.

While I personally cannot identify with that view, I can appreciate those who do and respect their framing of the situation. The capacity to find something good in difficult times, to make lemonade from very bitter lemons, is to be applauded. What I have also believed is that being diagnosed with cancer and going through months of treatment can give us a chance to consider and contemplate our lives and our choices. Cancer circumstances force us to slow down, to temporarily (we hope) give up some obligations and responsibilities, and to take time to heal.

As they begin treatment, many people have told me that they hope to use their unusually quiet time to organize the boxes of old family photographs or to clean their closets. That rarely, if ever, happens. But many do use the time to be with the people they most love, to be outside and appreciate the natural world, to re-read beloved books or listen more often to music. These are all healing activities.

Being able to look past the destroyed barn and see the moon is wonderful. For almost all of us, it takes time. We can’t rush towards a new world view or ignore the grief and anxiety we feel. First, we have to acknowledge the hurt and the losses. We must ask ourselves: What has been the hardest part about having cancer? What do I most miss? What do I fear will never again be part of my life?

Generally speaking, our culture does not allow for grief. People who have lost a family member are expected to quickly pick up their lives and carry on. Most employers give only a few days for bereavement leave and expect employees to be back on the job, and doing it well, very quickly. After a diagnosis of cancer, we are all urged to stay positive and manage our treatments and our lives without much complaint. The hardest pressure and the highest expectations may be internal; we may set almost impossibly high standards for ourselves.

Years ago, there was an essay in The New York Times Magazine about two women going through breast cancer treatment. Although they never met, one kept hearing about the other who reportedly never missed a tennis game and rarely missed a ball. These glowing stories, usually told with the apparent belief that she should behave similarly, made her feel even worse about her fatigue and misery.

Being diagnosed with cancer is like having our personal barn burn down. We are allowed to weep, to rage, to strongly express our pain. We are also allowed to slowly begin to see the moon, the stars, or the grace of a butterfly. Stop and notice. As the old saying goes, no one ever promised us a rose garden. But the world, every single day, promises a new dawn and new beauty.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
View All Articles