June 11, 2023

Are You More of a Risk Taker Since Illness?


I often hear that people live more fully, more passionately after having a life threatening illness, doing things they have never done before. Not me. Since going through cancer treatment, I have a whole new relationship to physical risk. I just cannot stand it.

I used to love hiking – scrambling up rocky hillsides, walking on narrow cliff ledges, going into the total isolation of deep, deep woods. Not now. Instead of freeing adventures I see in hiking mostly risks – falling to my death, injuring myself far away from help, stumbling across snakes.

Radiation treatment was hell for me.  I reached new lows I never knew were possible.  My body now feels hardwired with the message “You are breakable.” I drive like a grandma because I know I’m breakable. I wash knives more carefully in the sink because I know I’m breakable. My fears don’t limit most of my daily activities, nor do I feel like I’ve become obsessive about protecting my body from injury. But I am surely less of a risk taker than before cancer.

I often read about people who have the cancer epiphany – realizing they had always been playing it safe or quiet in life, seeing that they’ve only got one chance to live, they come out of their shell, give life their all.  Again, not me.

I never had a cancer epiphany.  I have always lived passionately and given life my all.  I’ve always striven for my dreams, thought outside the box, not really cared what people thought of me, and rarely took no for an answer. I’m the same me, living that same life. But now, I just do it with a lot more physical precaution.

Since illness, are there new activities you’ve been provoked to do - large or small?  (Sky diving anyone?) Or, have you limited the situations in which you put yourself at physical risk?  Do you have some version of washing the knives more carefully?  Have you reached physical lows from surgery, treatment, or side effects that you never thought possible?  Did this change you?

Read about Geoff’s dare devil cancer acts in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Shane Says:
    September 25th, 2009 at 8:02 PM

    My girlfriend turned into daredevil girl after her cancer. it was like she said I beat this and I can beat anything. I admire her courage. With health issues now though it seems like every sneeze she worries she is going to die. This has gotten worse since she had her baby. I cannot imagine any of it though I try so hard. She is my hero.

  2. Kami Says:
    September 25th, 2009 at 10:44 PM

    Kairol, I am totally the same as you are. Before cancer, I loved things that were scary enough to make my adrenaline pump. I loved the rush. I liked exploring new things and I wasn’t afraid of what was out there. I didn’t have the thoughts of “what if I get hurt?” and other thoughts like that in my head. Now, I too drive like a grandma- and I can hardly stand my husband’s driving because he does not drive like a grandpa. I don’t even like to go too fast on our boat anymore. When I am out in the middle of nowhere, I think about things like how long it would take an ambulance to reach me if I needed it. It sounds warped, but I just can’t help it. Cancer made me realize how much I wanted to stay alive- not how much crazy living I could do.

  3. carolbe Says:
    September 26th, 2009 at 5:30 PM

    I think the term here is “accepting mortality.” When I was a little kid I used to say the prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep. . .” and it has the line “If I should die before I wake.” All of a sudden I realized that I took this “If I should die” as a stand alone concept. “When shall I die” takes some getting used to on a gut level, even though we all know intellectually that death is a given.

  4. Anastasia Says:
    September 27th, 2009 at 3:06 PM

    Hi Kairol,

    I would say that in certain ways, yes I am more daring. For example, I have come out and said and done things in a more forward and open way than I probably would have in the past! I am slightly more selfish, in way that I think is for the most part, healthy- a feeling of I deserve good things as much as anyone else does, anyway, and that I might as well let life know what I want.

    In another sense, though, I’d say that, at least right now, I have quite a bit more anxiety, in general. I think being “hit” with the cancer experience, chemo, and radiation (almost done!) has just kind of shocked me, in a way, and I am still reeling a bit, from it all! I find myself just feeling nervous a lot more than I used to. My sense of stability has been shaken up.

    So it’s a mixture, for me.

  5. Baldylocks Says:
    September 27th, 2009 at 10:26 PM

    I was a crazed daredevil child and switched over to being a fairly cautious adult due to raising 3 small boys. I never lost the spirit of making my life whatever I wanted it to be, though. I plowed through art school and tried as many new things as I felt I could fit in, even when others didn’t approve. Some of the things I thought I would do later, then BAM. Cancer.

    Now I have this naggy little feeling telling me life isn’t forever and I also have this feeling like I’m actually breakable. I’m not really sure what to do with that concept yet considering I love to do things like jump off high cliffs into the river. The old me probably thinks the new me is a wuss.

    I do know that whatever time I have here, I will continue to reach for all of my dreams and experiment with life. Why the heck not?

  6. JessieO Says:
    September 27th, 2009 at 11:12 PM

    I’m with Anastasia. I am more daring in my personal life: asking for what I want-being clear with myself and others even when it’s uncomfortable. As for my physical well-being, I no longer enjoy a cigarette with my coffee, I wear sunscreen, I steer clear of foods and personal products with whatever toxin is currently being demonized… and I run less red lights. Every healthy day with my body is a good one.

  7. Jen Says:
    September 28th, 2009 at 8:31 AM

    I’m with the last few comments. I have no desire for physical risks, but my lack of contentedness has created some angst in my marriage. I want to travel more, try harder to achieve more in my career. I am not content with sitting still! A friend of mine just did a parachute jump from a plane and I jokingly say that that call with the words “you have cancer” is enough of an adrenaline rush for me!

  8. Heat Says:
    September 29th, 2009 at 9:56 PM

    I’m not any more or less afraid of the “rush” activities than I was before cancer. I’d do the less scary things (roller coasters, the big bungee thing at the fair, hiking in the Grand Canyon), but not the more scary (parachuting).

    I’m certainly not any more careful with small stuff (washing knives) — though I’m occasionally aware (and thankful) that if I cut myself, I do not risk neutropenic fever. How fabulous only to need stitches!

    I wear sunscreen, I have cut out plastics, I’ve drastically reduced chemicals in my food (sweetners, HFCS, pesticides).

    I’ve become more motivated to take care of my body (food, exercise, sleep, stress) and to push it (I just finished my second triathlon). I’ve been going to an awesome therapist to deal with baggage (mostly not cancer-related) so that my buttons don’t get pushed as easily so my stress level is lower, my interactions and relationships are more positive, which makes life nicer.

    Why live longer if we’re not going to live freer?

  9. Eileen Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 5:30 PM

    Maybe it has to do with how you lived your life prior to diagnosis - or perhaps with the type of cancer you are dealing with? I have always been a cautious person, and I have to say that although I haven’t become a daredevil per se, I’ve taken a lot more risks and been a lot more ‘up front’ about things since my diagnosis with Stage IV BC. As I told my husband when he fretted about me standing on the (windy) ledge in the Badlands, ‘I can only die once.’ And frankly, a sudden death at the end of a long fall seems a lot better in some ways than death at the end of a long, painful period of disease treatment and progression. I don’t want to die of either cause, but I don’t have a choice about the one, so I’m not going to worry about the other. I’m going to live while I can, right now. If I’d had more fun and lived more fully in the past, though, I suppose I might feel more as you do. We each have our own unique journey, that’s the only thing I know for sure…

  10. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 9:08 PM

    Eileen - I think you are so right that how I lived before cancer certainly shines some light on how I live with it now. I don’t think I could have lived more fully or better before cancer. I sometimes wish I were still living just that fully now. I like that you add to your risk taking repertoire the notion of being ‘up front’. Some of the biggest risks we can take are not just physical but emotional. I’ll be thinking of you and all that you are facing as you move forward in your riskier, fuller life - no matter how long it is lived. Thanks for your comment. All my best, Kairol

  11. Ryan Says:
    June 11th, 2010 at 10:44 PM

    I wouldn’t say it’s made me more of a risk taker, but it’s given me a push to do and accomplish things that I’ve been wanting to do.

    Because as you said, life and humans are breakable so I don’t want to waste any time just sitting around and waiting to shatter.

  12. Kim Says:
    June 12th, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    Interesting what Ryan just said, b/c I’d say it’s given me LESS of a push to do and accomplish things, at least career-wise, that I’d been wanting to do. Not to say that I’m not trying to pursue the same goals as before, but I do feel that the stress of high achievement professionally (esp when success is uncertain) may not be worth it, from a health standpoint. I hear so many stories of people getting cancer after they’ve been, like me, a ‘work-aholic.’ Part of me wonders if there’s some truth to that. To me, the more of life that can be relaxing and peaceful now, the better! I don’t think I was much of a risk taker before cancer, nor am I now. ;)

  13. Jaime Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 4:51 PM

    Before my brain tumor diagnosis I was a bit of a risk taker (roller coasters). After my second brain surgery I have done some physical risky activities (skydiving and snowboarding). But these are things I always wanted to do and figured I would “some day.” After being diagnosed I try not to live with the “some day” attitude because who knows how much time I have for that. But my fears have changed, instead of being afraid that I would die I was afraid of having a seizure during this activities. I am more careful about some things (taking baths, traveling alone), but the fear is getting hurt from a seizure. I agree with others that I have pushed other aspects of my life. Mostly in the areas of things I would be too intimidated to do (new jobs, talking to people). I figure none of these things can result in an outcome of what I have been through. So what if I do not get the job, it isnt like have brain surgery ;)

  14. Frank Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 8:27 PM

    I haven’t changed in some ways-I still love an adrenalin rush, will go on any amusement park ride there is, want to sky-dive and bungee-jump, etc. But in the smaller, day to day things, I’m certainly more laid back. You’re far more apt to find me reading than at a skate park. I’m not 100% sure, though, that this isn’t more due to simply growing up rather than the cancer.

  15. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 9:01 PM

    Frank - You bring up a great point that I think about often: what changes in my life are due to having cancer and what changes are due to the fact I was diagnosed with cancer at 27, an age that is ripe for a lot of growing up and changing.

  16. Dana Marton Says:
    June 21st, 2010 at 1:21 AM

    I am much less of a daredevil than before, but I guess that isn’t saying much b/c I wasn’t really a huge risk taker before. Now I eat better, drive more carefully, lock the doors and windows, carefully take my meds completely as directed, etc., etc., etc.

    I’ve turned into a prude. Although I believe I have a lot of passion in my life, my comment makes me wonder if people think that is the case!

    Blessings, Dana

  17. Gail Says:
    June 26th, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    I just have the overpowering urge to get a tattoo. On my mastectomy scar. Not that exciting or daring, but certainly a change from before my diagnosis! My husband is keeping me grounded, however, so no ink in my future. :-) Cheers to everyone on this blog!

  18. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    June 26th, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    Hi Gail, Thanks for talking about your inking decision. You might like to read this post - there are a number of comments from readers about tattoos in regard to scaring and mastectomy. https://everythingchangesbook.com/kairol/prosthetics-baldness-cancer Hope you are well! Kairol

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