Living in a Family with Cancer: How Adversity Helped Me Relish the Joys of Life

Learning that adversity happens in every family -- just in different ways -- helped this cancer survivor change his outlook on life

“It’s something my parents and siblings encounter with regularity. Some families have red hair. Or they spawn a lot of tall people. Mine produces very ordinary people who have a propensity for cancer. So I had plenty of training under my belt when my own world was turned upside down with surgery and a summer at home to heal.”

 --From Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew

I think the first time I heard the word “cancer” was around the age of six or seven when my mother told me that her own mom, Grandma Cotton, died from breast cancer.

And while I didn’t dwell on it, I do remember being a little uncertain as to what the word “breast” meant. What I was certain of, however, was that cancer killed. I figured that it must be a really bad infection. Or something like that.

And then a few years later my mom died of brain cancer. This time I was absolutely sure what the word “brain” meant because we had studied it in science class. And while I still wasn’t 100 percent sure what “cancer” was, I clearly knew it was a killer.

And it was to be feared.

But a funny thing happens when you’re afraid of something. You start to convince yourself that it’s not real. Like the bogeyman. He wasn’t real. Or the guy with a knife hiding under my bed when I was a kid; he wasn’t real, either. Every child develops skills to deal with those nasty things that cause fear.

And I used those same skills to deal with any fears I had about cancer. I spent the next 15 or 20 years of my life pretending that cancer was done with my family. I mean, seriously, the odds had to be in our favor. Right?

But guess what I learned? Some things are real!

I figured that out when my dad died of cancer. And I was sure that I was correct a couple years later when my young brother, Kevin, died of brain cancer. By the time I reached my 40th birthday, half my family was gone. Holy cow. This cancer thing was very, very real.

And what knocked everything out of the park was receiving my own diagnosis of early-age, aggressive prostate cancer at the age of 44.

We were officially a family with a lot of cancer.

And that sucks. Of course it does. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time being downright angry about it. It’s unfair. It makes no sense. And I’ve had plenty of jealous moments in my life when I’d stand on the sidelines and look at friends who had three of four generations of family members still living. I know that’s a terrible thing to admit, but I’ve had those feelings. Often.

Yes, being from a family with a lot of cancer sucks. But through the years I’ve come to understand that cancer is just one of many adversities in life. Families with cancer don’t corner the market on pain. There are plenty of others who suffer with myriad adversities. Alcohol; drugs; horrible marriages; abusive parents; severe disabilities; diabetes; mental illness; and economic adversity. And a long list of things that cause children harm. Plus so many more.

The day I figured that out was the day I stopped being angry, jealous and fearful.

How’d that happen?


I’ve watched others live with obstacles that appear insurmountable. I’ve been exposed to people who have stories that rip my heart out. I’ve witnessed adversities of others that – candidly --make our family’s losses seem so small. And I’m constantly amazed at how many of these people -- in spite of their pain -- live rich, giving, full lives.

And through them I’ve learned the secret of living a life with joy. It’s all a matter of perspective.

You see, it’s not about living a joy-filled life in spite of adversity. It’s because of adversity -- and the loss, challenges, and experiences it brings -- that we are able to understand the value of that which we still have and embrace and relish a joy-filled life that still exists.

You can read more from Jim Higley at Bobblehead Dad.

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