By John Leifer
There are few life events that can transform our daily reality more swiftly than a diagnosis of cancer. A once neatly planned future can seemingly evaporate in the wake of an overwhelming existential threat. The degree to which we remain mired in this nether-land of despair can be a function of the severity of our cancer, coupled with a myriad of variables – from our psychological health to our spirituality.
Fortunately, for most patients, the profound shock of cancer diminishes significantly over a relatively short period of time. For others, however, the distress associated with cancer may be a frequent or constant companion on the cancer journey, and it may even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There is yet another group, though, whose brush with mortality transforms them in a life-affirming direction. For these patients, the threat of cancer results not in PTSD, but in quite the opposite – post-traumatic growth (PTG).
The term post-traumatic growth was first coined by researchers Richard Calhoun and Lawrence Tedeschi more than two decades ago. Calhoun and Tedeschi stated that two criteria must be met to satisfy their definition of post-traumatic growth: 1) The individual must struggle with a life-changing event; 2) that struggle then leads to profound growth and change. Such growth may take many forms, including enhanced personal relationships, a deepened sense of spirituality, or an awareness of the transcendent meaning of life.
It could be argued that scientists such as Calhoun and Tedeschi have simply formalized and named an idea that predates them by millennia: the indomitable spirit of human beings. It is a force that allows us not only to overcome seemingly insurmountable adversity, but to derive profound meaning from the experience. It has long been a topic of interest to philosophers and poets. Shakespeare eloquently stated: “Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” 
One of the most profound examples of post-traumatic growth comes not from a cancer patient, but from Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis:
The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” – and the light shineth in the darkness.
Frankl had endured unrelenting trauma – including the death of his family – and yet his indomitable spirit was able to rise above it – to be set free. Reflecting on his experiences, Frankl offered this guidance: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
Cancer has the power to inflict profound suffering, but only the human spirit has the power to transform that suffering into tremendous growth – growth that causes one to rise above an uncertain future, and find profound meaning in one’s relationships, faith, and the simple joys of life.
Also available by John Leifer:
After You Hear It’s Cancer: A Guide to Navigating the Difficult Journey Ahead now available in the Cancer Care Store.
 Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1995).Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
 Sears, S. R., Stanton, A. L., & Danoff-Burg, S. (2003). The yellow brick road and the Emerald City: Benefit finding, positive reappraisal coping, and posttraumatic growth in women with early-stage breast cancer. Health Psychology, 22(5), 487-497.
 Stanton, A. L., Bower, J. E., & Low, C. A. (2006). Posttraumatic growth after cancer. In L. G. Calhoun & R. G. Tedeschi (Eds.), Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice (pp. 138-175). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
 Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/adversity_3.html
 Frankl, V. E. Man’s search for meaning. (1984). Boston, MA: Beacon Press, p. 60.
 Tedeschi, R., & Calhoun. L. G. (1995). Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.