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Why Cancer ‘Good News’ Stories Can Be Harmful

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Cancer “good news” stories cannot take away from an important truth. Here are seven important points to remember.

When it comes to health and illness (whether physical or mental), some good news stories and topics can divide opinions, a lot more than some may expect. And it is no different (or especially so) for cancer “good news” stories.

I was reminded of that when reading some responses to the news that Sarah Thomas, who had previously been treated for breast cancer, swam the English Channel – four times.

Whether you have cancer or not; whether you have another life-changing illness, or not, chances are, you too want good news stories. And not just about our illnesses, but about our world, society or neighborhood.

We all crave for something that helps make everything else worthwhile or more bearable or that which gives us hope.

Let me say in no uncertain terms: I applaud Sarah and respect her achievement. I could not do it, not a fraction of it, before my cancer diagnosis, after, or now with the illness. And I would not want to do it either, then or now.

And let me say further in no uncertain terms: everyone affected by cancer may choose their own very personal way of finding meaning, carrying on and turning the experience into something (or not).

What I do, may not be what you choose to do. And what you do, may not be what I can do. There is no competition. We all have equal worth.

However, if you report or hear cancer “good news” stories please remember:

1. Cancer and cancer treatment experiences are complex, unpredictable and individual. If one person does “well,” it does not mean others can do so, too.  Generalization can lead to unrealistic expectations and unintentional shaming.

2. Those who do not engage in sports, continue to have weight issues, do not write books or blogs, do not get involved in advocacy or anything else – none are necessarily less committed to their health, community, family or themselves. And even if they are, it is not for others to judge or make assumptions.

3. Treatment side effects and psychological difficulties can limit one’s abilities (e.g., long-lasting effects of cancer fatigue, chemo brain, weight gain and PTSD are some of the more common experiences). And let’s not forget, we all have choices.

4. Coping with cancer cannot be simplified to “where there is a will, there is a way.”

5. People affected by cancer will cope and manage in their own way, whether noticeable to others, or not. This is something we need to encourage.

6. The reporting of positive cancer stories can cause emotional pain, anger, fear and a sense of failure among those who have lost (or never had) the abilities others are celebrated for. This can lead to a greater sense of isolation and unrealistic expectations in society (and among people affected by cancer) about what is realistically possible, or not.

7. We all are in need of “good cancer stories” because accepting the reality of uncertainty and loss can be hard to bear. We all need hope, but realistic hope. Talking about how to learn to bear the unbearable must not be excluded from the discussion.

Bottom line – being affected by cancer (incl relatives), whoever you are, whatever your cancer, wherever you are at with the illness, it is an endurance challenge!

And I for one salute every single one of you, whatever you do or don’t do.

And I wish you well with it all!

Follow this journey at You can also check out Karin’s podcast “Cancer and You.”

This story originally appeared on

Getty image via roshinio.

Originally published: November 5, 2019
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