Why is having cancer different to other illnesses

Updated: Aug 18

Most of us have experience of illness whether it is a tooth abscess, cut hand, flu or something more serious. We have a reference point to illness and recovery.


We know with a cold, stomach virus or broken limb the likely course of the illness, recovery and outcome. We feel ill for a few days, take some medicine, take some time off work, miss a party, recover and never look back. If only having cancer was as simple. The differences between having cancer and other illnesses adds to the difficulties in recovering from it.

The first difference between cancer and other illnesses is that it is commonly the treatment which creates the symptoms of illness and not the illness itself which is a new concept to experience and is unsettling. How will you feel after chemo? No one can tell you, they can only provide a list of possible side effects which we each will experience differently. This unknown and uncertainty can create fear and anxiety. How will you feel following surgery for kidney cancer? Again no one can tell you and you have no previous experience from which to draw comfort.


A further difference is that treatment for cancer often spans weeks or more frequently months if not years. Not knowing an end point for an illness is distressing because we gain comfort and hope from the temporality of our illness. Scars or drug side effects can add to the difficulties in recovering from cancer because we can never quite leave cancer behind and return to our former lives.


The physical impact cancer has on day one may be very different to the impact it has in year one, five or even ten. The physical impact will also change as we move through the treatments. Chemo is very different to radiotherapy. Hormone therapy is very different to surgery. Each change requires an adjustment to our thinking as we work out how the change impacts on us. Again this adds to the difficulties in recovering from cancer because we are constantly having to assess and adapt to the impact it has on us.


Cancer not only has an impact on our physical health it also affects us emotionally too and the depth of these emotions is a further difference to other illnesses. Because health is mainly diagnosed, treated and measured in the medical model around our physical health our emotional health can have less of a focus and is a further reason why cancer is difficult to recover from. The emotional impact is often less obvious than the physical symptoms and it can be difficult to talk about this. Additionally, these emotions may be present for a long time after the initial treatment finishes with check-ups and anniversaries triggering these once more.


Cancer is like no other illness and it is not something we cannot recover quickly from because of the breadth and depth of the impact it has on us. Cancer does not fit with our previous experience of illness so we have few strategies to manage the impact and therefore aid our recovery.

How was having cancer different from other illnesses you have had? What was the impact of this difference on you?




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