The Last Gift

the gift

Cancer as . . . a gift?

“My cancer is a gift from God . . .” is what a patient said to their hospice nurse.

What is your first reaction to that comment? How about, You’ve got to be kidding! Or, Does that patient have a terminal and mental illness? Or you’d be speechless and roll your eyes . . . or shake your head and mutter several tsk-tsks . . . or clamp your jaw shut because your mother told you if you didn’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.

Or would you nod your head in reluctant agreement?

Can you imagine that last reaction—nodding and agreeing—to the patient’s pronouncement? I can, though it helped to hear the nurse’s report of the patient’s complete sentence: “My cancer is a gift from God because it has brought my children closer.”

So far, in my aging baby boomer life, I’ve had several modest traumatic events that became change agents for my attitude toward self, others, and the world. One happened in the year I turned thirty. My left leg met a rocky outcropping during a tumble down a snowy mountain slope. Gravity and granite were against me, and multiple bones were broken. I ended up in a cast for months, dependent upon other people for most of that time. Before that literal and metaphoric break, a divorce from five years before had been festering in my soul. I often doubted and even loathed myself, careening between thinking today was bad but tomorrow could be worse. It wasn’t just the divorce; there were other negatives that burdened me. Nonetheless, I figured to “tough it out” on my own. But the break broke me. I became dependent. I saw people and the world (and me) with different, more forgiving eyes.

A token broken leg is nothing compared to a fatal cancer diagnosis. Except that both may open literal eyes and metaphoric hearts.

I don’t know details about the patient’s family. Families can wallow in a history of poor communication. Families have children or parents or both that have battled each other for years. A family’s lack of mutual support could be as mundane as the adult children living in different area codes. A family’s troubles can include complexities like a gay son coming out to religiously conservative parents or a parent’s second marriage to someone the kids don’t like. Some anger can be explained. Some can’t. In his The Four Things That Matter Most, hospice physician Ira Byock wrote, “I have long thought that the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant.”

Oh, how I agree!

Why does it take a crisis to change us?

Why does it take a calamity to nudge one person to appreciate the other?

Why does a family, whether amusingly or disastrously dysfunctional, come together when the worst occurs to a parent or sibling?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a traumatic event like cancer will transform a family’s ancient anger or newborn fears. But often enough, the terrible or tragic spawns the possibility of creating a bridge where there was once a wall. And maybe there will be better communication? And maybe even healing that lasts? I think that’s what was unfolding with our patient. With a relentless, opportunistic cancer destroying a parent’s body, the children put aside differences and worked together. They drove long miles or crossed emotional thresholds to support the “whole family.”

This won’t happen for everyone. It did for her. I would never explain cancer as a “gift from God” (because I don’t believe God causes cancer to happen to people), but I understood the parent’s declaration. She was not merely grasping at proverbial straws, but had witnessed her now adult children showing her, and each other, compassion.

Even when we have no choice, our choices matter.

At some point in the future, in the next weeks or months, I will hear that this patient died. A death certificate will likely list a grim disease. But in a parent’s final weeks or months, and I’m confident about this: a last gift love will be shared with children, and memories will be created that may help bring new life to an anguished family in the time following death.

Cancer as . . . a gift?

Why do we—why do you, why do I—wait for the worst to seek or share hope?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather


  1. I know a child, born with a genetic disease that caused him to have an organ transplant before he turned 10. He told me once how despite the daily regimen of meds and special food a lot of good has come out of his illness, because he meets lots of interesting people and goes to fun places (he participates in the Transplant Games regularly). I thought how remarkable it is for a child who’s been through so much already (and things won’t get any easier) to have that insight, and resilience of spirit. He has figured out life better than most of us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.