November 26, 2023

Do You Give Thanks for Your Illness?


Before diving into their turkey, most families take time to go around the table and say what they are thankful for.  Not my family.  We are all about the food in the Rosenthal household and we always have been.

This doesn’t bother me.  I come from a very demonstrative family.  We express our gratitude on a regular basis, when it hits us in the moment.  We don’t store it all up for a once a year gratitude fest.

I do have a ton that I am grateful for in my life.  But cancer is not one of these things.  Cancer has lead me to become a less judgmental person.  I listen to others now in a way that I didn’t before.  It has also turned me into a writer.  But I feel pretty confident that I’ve always had the capacity to become a less judgmental person and a writer.  If it didn’t come out through cancer, it would have come out through another, hopefully less painful route.

A lot of survivors say that if given the choice they would chose to have cancer because they are grateful for the changes it has brought to their life.  In my book Everything Changes, I wrote about this issue at the end of my conversation with Greg, a young adult cancer patient in Alabama:

“Had good things come from my own cancer? Yes, talking to Greg in his truck was one of many, but I believed that I was a pretty decent and self-aware person who did not need this horrific experience to make me appreciate the world around me or my role in it. If people needed pain through which to learn life lessons (and I debated whether that was even true), opportunities to open oneself up to suffering abound, and it saddened me that most people do not make themselves vulnerable in this way until they have no other choice.”

My dog, my husband, my mom and dad, my father-in-law, my friends, my health insurance, and a roof over my head are on my list of things that I’m grateful for on a regular basis.  Cancer is not one of them.

What about you?  Is cancer on the list of things for which you give thanks?

Read other perspectives on cancer and gratitude in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Pam Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 4:36 AM

    I don’t have thyroid cancer (I do have Graves’ Disease) and I totally agree with your post! Thanks for sharing. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  2. laurie edwards Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 7:31 AM

    Love this post! I agree with you.

    I actually wrote something along these lines this week when talking about being gluten-free on Thanksgiving. I am not grateful I have celiac, but I am grateful I know that I do and can do something about it. Same with my other diseases, which are incurable and progressive. I am not grateful I have these respiratory and autoimmune conditions, but I am thankful I live in a time where they can be properly diagnosed and where I have some treatment options.

    In my immediate family, we have cancer, heart disease, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, polymyositis, and diabetes…to name a few. We’d all be good, loving people without these things, and I don’t think being sick made us better people, or that we should be grateful we’ve had these challenges to partially define us. But it did help us understand each other and have more empathy for our health challenges…and that’s something.

    Happy Thanksgiving! I look forward to talking with you soon, Kairol.

  3. Alex Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 8:31 AM

    I feel the same way. My cancer has led me to meet people and discover things I didn’t know before that have been good. But none of them can ever change the fact that I would gladly never have been diagnosed and I most certainly am not grateful to have been diagnosed and to now be living the rest of my life with the consequences and sequelae of cancer. Cancer sucks and there is no way I can find to put a happy face on it. All I can do is just be glad to be alive and to have met some fantastic people as a result of it.

  4. Jonathan Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 10:22 AM

    I am thankful for many things, but my wife’s cancer is certainly not one of them. In fact, Thanksgiving has always been a rough holiday for me. My wife was first diagnosed a week before Thanksgiving in 2003. To make things worse, last week we were informed that a new tumor is growing; it is her third recurrance. The Thanksgiving holiday was already bringing back scary memories, and I’m afraid that after this week, it will continue to do so.

    But, today I am thankful that we can have a Thanksgiving Day together, that she’s feeling good today and we are looking forward to spending the day with our families.


  5. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 10:45 AM

    I am grateful for so many things about life and living - but grateful for my cancer? Hell, no!
    Have a good holiday, everyone.

  6. H Lee D Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 1:14 PM

    Grateful for cancer? No. Grateful for many of the things that have come from it: people I would never have met, projects I might never have taken on, awareness that I’m not sure you can get from many other paths … but I would surely trade all of those back in for a cancer-free life.

  7. Alli Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 9:38 PM

    No I am not one of those who is grateful for cancer. How can I be thankful for something that has changed my world upside down?
    I wake up with pain I go to bed with the same pain of Nueropathy. I can’t recall ever being so sick then when I was on Chemo. I am who I am constantly worrying what if it comes back??

    Great post BTW!


  8. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    November 26th, 2009 at 10:06 PM

    Jonathan, I’m really sorry to hear about the recent news of your wife’s recurrence. That flat out sucks. I’m here if you ever need a good person to vent to, or if you need me to connect you to any kinds of resources. I’m thinking of you. And to all the rest of you…I think we all would have had a great Thanksgiving sitting around the table together being utterly unthankful for our disease!

  9. frank Says:
    November 27th, 2009 at 2:05 AM

    There are definitely certain up sides to cancer-friends, self-discovery, etc, but there is absolutely no way I would ever say that I am grateful for it.

  10. JessieO Says:
    November 27th, 2009 at 3:34 AM

    When I try to think of it as a dichotomy: grateful/not grateful for cancer I can’t really come to any conclusion. Sure, I’d like to believe that what I love about my life now would have been possible without disease, but it’s impossible to know. I do know that I’m happier than I was before I was sick and that the cancer is an integral part of who I am now… and I like that person. Gonna go with grateful for now.

  11. Candy Says:
    November 27th, 2009 at 6:50 PM

    I had 30 happy, healthy disease free years where, like almost every other healthy, normal person, I freely imagined and planned my future - what I’d be doing a year, 2 years, 10 years and even further ahead. Everyone knows anything can happen at any time - as the saying goes, ‘you could step off a curb and get hit by a bus tomorrow’. But finding out you’ve got cancer is incomparable to the remote, unpredictable and abstract possibility that at some point, an accident could befall you. I can’t be thankful for something that is going to kill me, that prevents me from thinking even a week ahead without feeling terrified of what that week will bring. I hate even waking up each day and having to see my parents faces as they struggle to cope with the fact they are going to outlive their only daughter. I’m sorry to be so morbid, it’s all just all too hard for me - especially at this time of year!

  12. Cathy Bueti Says:
    November 29th, 2009 at 9:56 AM

    I am not thankful for having had cancer however I am thankful for the wonderful people I have met along the way, the survivors I have connected with, and the changes I have made in my life as a result of my cancer experience. And Kairol like you my cancer experience led me to be a writer although I always felt I had it in me that was when I really focused on doing it. I always try to look at my difficult experiences and see what I can learn about myself from them even though it sucks big time to go through it!

  13. Emily Beck Says:
    November 29th, 2009 at 5:57 PM

    I guess this is something we all think about this time of year. Here are my musings on the subject:

    I sometimes think it’s a matter of semantics. I doubt anyone is “glad” they got cancer. It’s just comes down to how your interpret and organize the ways in which your life has changes as a result of it. I hate cancer and everything it took from me, but I am so thankful that I have the life I do now.

  14. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    November 29th, 2009 at 7:00 PM

    Hi Emily, I just checked out your post. It’s a great one. I’m glad to hear how strong and thriving you are these days. You describe well the waves of intensity and depression that can exist after treatment and show well that there is another side to life beyond “life after treatment.”

    I hear what you are saying about the semantics side of the “glad for cancer” equation. But I have indeed met many cancer patients who are genuinely glad for their cancer. Each and every part of it - the sickness and pain as well as the life lessons - and would not trade it for the world. This is so not my perspective. I lived my life more fully before I had cancer and could have easily done without it. But I do respect that everyone has their own experience and that for some, it is a welcome gift. Even though I respect it this viewpoint, it does make me sad to think that some people’s lives are so unfulfilled that they need an event like this to live fully.

  15. Kate Says:
    November 30th, 2009 at 10:47 AM

    I can’t be grateful for having cancer and honestly the people that say that make me a little crazy. I am amazed that there are people who were so unhappy in their lives that cancer became a good thing but I don’t live their life so what do I know.

    I am grateful that I have met some wonderful people and had some opportunities that I don’t think I would have had if it hadn’t been for cancer. I’m grateful for my body, which while it doesn’t look the way I’d like it to fought like hell when inundated with treatments. I’m grateful for my family and for the true friends that the cancer brought to the surface.

    But I don’t think I needed cancer to give me character or to give my life meaning. I’d do without it any time!

  16. Anonymous Says:
    November 30th, 2009 at 8:30 PM

    The title of this post really wound me up! I honestly think that anyone who could be thankful for having cancer must have had a pretty meaningless, mediocre existence before they got ill if it took something so crappy to improve it (I’d also bet that anyone who could say ‘I’m grateful for cancer’ most likely believes they’ll survive the cancer). I had pretty much everything I wanted before cancer - great career prospects, savings, travel plans, a big circle of friends, lots of hobbies and interests. I was motivated, active, always out doing stuff. I loved my life! Cancer COMPLETELY robbed me of all of that and it took away my future. I HATE CANCER! I hate the person it has turned me in to! I have lost all motivation to do anything with the time I have left. I want my old life back so bad, it makes me physically ache.

  17. ALK Says:
    December 1st, 2009 at 6:00 PM

    I do think for some people illness can be a wake up call. They leave their toxic spouse, make positive changes in their lives, do whatever they need to live the life they want to live. Me, I’d prefer the life I had before the illnesses…but that’s not the life I have at this point, so i am just trying to do the best I can with the life I have been dealt. That alone is a challenge. I was a better person before. happier. more energy. nicer…. with the treatments being worse than the diseases it’s hard to be even tempered when you are a crazy hyper thyroid lady….maybe now I am more compassionate for others’ suffering, but grateful for this? I am grateful for puppies and rainbows. but not cancer. Oh god, not cancer.

  18. Ann Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    What I am grateful for is the person I found within and the time to sort things out. The very precious and important people that are my support, and my family. I was diagnosed with Stage 4C Thyroid Cancer and was in shock and denial through most of my surgeries and treatments. I just completed my second treatment a year later and with knowledge and being prepared it was a totally different experience.

  19. Genevieve Thul Says:
    March 19th, 2010 at 1:00 AM

    Cancer is one of those things that reveals your hidden strengths. I guess one line from a favorite cancer anthem sums it up, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” I am blessed, in some ways, to have “the good kind of cancer” (thyroid), so I get the benefits of re-examining my life, letting go of insecurities or paranoia about what others think, spending more time soaking up the details and doing the spur-of-the-moment things with my kids, husband, family and friends…with only a 16% chance that this disease will kill me before age 40.

    Yes, I do give thanks. And I still wish it had never happened.

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