The Gift of Cancer

By  |  April 3, 2014 | 

From the start, let me say that I do not mean to imply that anyone diagnosed with cancer or any other disease is lucky for having received the diagnosis. I also want to emphasize that there is a tremendous spectrum that anyone living with cancer can experience, from benign to devastating.

The word “cancer” has a lot of power in our culture.  It can hang as a black cloud over our lives or the lives of loved ones.  We may think of powerlessness, uncertainty, death, pain, suffering, weakness, debility, or a host of other fearful connotations. It is almost assured to suck the air out of any conversation when it comes up. When someone I have not seen in a while asks, “What’s new?” I have to decide whether to bring up the CLL diagnosis and let that hijack the conversation, or to leave it unsaid.

But cancer can also bring out the best in us.  Who can help but be inspired by the stories of individuals who face surgery or debilitating chemotherapy, coming out the other side while maintaining strength and positivity throughout?  I have had a number of patients over the years whose rooms I entered expecting to pity them for their diagnosis or symptom burden, instead leaving buoyed by their calm and poise in the face of adversity.

We also underestimate the positive impact of a death due to cancer.  This is one of the reasons that I prefer to think of cancer as a journey rather than a battle. Death is not a loss in some great battle. Life itself is a terminal condition.  Someone is not weak if they cannot “beat” their cancer.  I have had the privilege to be present with a number of patients and families facing death due to a cancer.  I vividly recall several whose courage, dignity, acceptance, and curiosity in the face of death continue to be a model for how I hope to live my own life.

On a personal note, I am fortunate that my CLL and blood counts have been stable, with no need for chemotherapy on the horizon yet.  I am feeling well.  There is loss associated with my own cancer diagnosis – I cancelled our planned 9-month sabbatical to Thailand and Tanzania.  There is also the fear of CLL shortening my life, uncertainty about when/if I will need chemotherapy, and anger that this happened to me after living a relatively healthy life thus far.

But CLL has also been a gift.  It is one of those things that seized me by the back of the neck and forced me to examine my own life.  And I have made changes:  I am forcing myself to cut back on additional projects and even decreasing my FTE a little bit to allow my body to recover longer after weeks on service.

This summer, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to help teach a course in Thailand (click here if interested).  Instead of just going and working, as I have in the past, I will be bringing my family along and spending time with them afterwards. It may not be a whole academic year, but it will still be a great family experience.

I am also striving to be more mindful and present both at home and at the hospital, avoiding the “monkey mind” flitting from thought to thought, half-concentrating on several things and engaging in none of them fully. My challenge for the month of February and March was to avoid pulling out my iPhone to check e-mail while waiting for the elevator.  I can not say that I was 100 percent successful, but it was an improvement.  Same idea with parenting – I have been trying to avoid checking e-mail or Facebook while at my sons’ activities like basketball or concerts.  It is rare that I really needed to return that message right then, or that I would learn something all that important from a Facebook status update.

I cannot claim to be focusing on stress, sleep, exercise, and nutrition with the same fervor I had after my diagnosis last June, but I am doing my best.  Most importantly, my own diagnosis has helped me to put my stressors at work and home in more perspective. I like to think that I have been calmer and less prone to get worked up over more minor issues since my diagnosis.  Like most of us, de-stressing and focusing on work-life balance was on my agenda for a long time. But I am not sure that I would have looked into things as quickly or directly had I not been diagnosed with cancer. For that I am thankful.


  1. Casey Quinlan (@MightyCasey) April 3, 2014 at 10:00 am - Reply

    The subtitle of my book “Cancer for Christmas” is “Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” … so I totally get every word of what you’re saying. Empathy is an essential feature of human nature, and you’ve now got about three lifetimes’ worth for your own interaction with patients. You now understand – at the cellular level? – that medicine is a participatory effort. Best wishes for your continued “good markers” status.

  2. Mari Flores-Henderson April 3, 2014 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    Thank you Brett for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I too am striving to avoid the “monkey-mind” and be more engaged in the moment. Sending positive thoughts and prayers to you and Maia plus your little ones!

  3. Jonathan Kirsch April 16, 2014 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Beautiful piece. Interesting how a diagnosis of cancer can lead us to be more mindful. Some of the rest of us plug along without so much consciousness of our direction or awareness of the present moment. Excellent reminder.

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About the Author:

Brett Hendel-Paterson
Dr. Brett Hendel-Paterson wears several varied professional hats. He is board-certified in internal medicine, pediatrics, and palliative care. He is a med/peds and palliative care hospitalist at HealthPartners Regions Hospital in St. Paul, MN. He also has tropical medicine training with a CTropMed® from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (, where he is a counselor with the clinical group. He is an assistant professor of internal medicine and global health at the University of Minnesota (, and he is a codirector of the University of Minnesota Global Health Course. His professional passions and interests span medical education, palliative care, health disparities, internal medicine, tropical/travel medicine, and immigrant/refugee health. When he is not attending he is active working with the global health track in the University of Minnesota internal medicine residency. He received his undergraduate degree from Grinnell College, attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth for medical school, and the University of Minnesota for his med/peds residency. Outside work, he spends his time chasing down his two sons in elementary school, enjoying the outdoors, exercising, cooking, and music. His recent diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia in the summer of 2013 has required some significant work/life rebalancing and has underscored the importance of caring for patients in an empathic and kind manner in times when many are feeling particularly vulnerable.


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