Let’s be “Thrivers”! Don’t settle for being “Survivors”!

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

BE A THRIVER! I love that statement. It implies action and an attitude of gratefulness. It says that how we approach things, every day, matters in the long run. It affirms that each one of us can make a difference in our health and wellness.

That’s why you will hear more about cancer “thrivers” than cancer survivors here at WeAreCaregivers. In addition to these new weekly columns, I continue to write for Breast Cancer Wellness magazine, where our whole team has been trying to change the way Americans talk about cancer: We want more people to declare that they are cancer thrivers—not just survivors. Since launching and promoting this term a couple of years ago at the magazine, we are seeing it show up in national news reports regularly, these days. And that’s a major boost for people with cancer—like I was and like millions of others are today—in completely rethinking our approach to this battle.

Cancer is a funny thing. It can bring out the best and the worst in people—depending on your approach to life. I am not arguing that someone who decides to be a thriver won’t die. But, I am arguing that people who decide to thrive will truly live, no matter how many days they have left in this world. And guess what? We are all going to die, so my goal is to make the most of my days. Acknowledging death actually can help a person move toward a more fulfilling life.

You may think that I’m just an optimist. You may fear that this isn’t possible for you. But, over many years, I’ve learned that anyone can learn to thrive through cancer. This may take a major adjustment in the way we view our world. But the rewards are great—a life of purpose, one lived with eyes wide open to the wonder of each day.


Today, I am a writer, a speaker, a teacher through workshops that I lead. But, I am also a woman. A wife. A mom. A daughter. A friend. And, like millions of other people, I sat in a doctor’s office one day and listened as he told me to “get your affairs in order” because I had breast cancer. That was a life-changing day, because it started me on the path to my real life, the life that I believe I was created to live.

In the first letter that I sent to my family and friends to tell them about my cancer, I wrote: “We are not saying: Why me? Rather, we are saying: Try me!” You could say that letter was just me being young and dumb at the ripe old age of 26—but it set the tone of my life from the start. I knew that I was going to do everything I could to kill the cancer and live the best life possible. My intuition told me that I needed to find out what I could control and take charge of it, because that made me feel better. I also felt deeply that focusing on the extremely dreary statistics was exhausting and could negate the best things that I had done for myself each day.

I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what leads some people to thrive, while others cling to survival mode. You can read all about how I came to these conclusions in my memoir, We Are Killing Cancer Every Day. The book also includes perspectives from lots of people who were my allies in the struggle. I’m not claiming that you can bottle my specific formula for every other person facing cancer. But, here are a few principles that I’ve found mark true thrivers:

STRENGTHS FIRST: Thrivers focus on their strengths and build on them. They acknowledge their weaknesses and let them go.

WE’RE IN CHARGE: We are in charge of our own bodies. Thrivers are willing participants in our own health; we are not waiting for someone else to fix us. I chose to work closely with my medical team, rather than passively receive medical treatment.

SIFT THE INFORMATION: Thriving is a process of taking in information and using the very best of it to keep moving forward. This does not mean getting bogged down in the endless information that can capture our minds in a negative cycle. For example, I decided that I did not need to know the possible side effects of every medication that was prescribed for me. Focusing on those long lists of scary possibilities would have been too depressing. My husband volunteered to take in all those facts—just in case we needed to know them. I’m not alone in making this choice. You will find in Godsigns that Suzy Farbman and her husband made a very similar division of roles as she fought to overcome her cancer.

NURTURE YOURSELF: Greet each day with a spirit of making good choices and living fully. Rest when needed. Don’t worry if you stray occasionally. I still recall a conversation with a woman who was skeptical of my strict diet while I was battling cancer. She implored, “Don’t you ever just want to have a chocolate chip cookie?”

I told her, “If I want a cookie, I will have one and move on. But, most of the time, I choose a life watching my kids grow up over my desire for a cookie.”

BAD STUFF WILL HAPPEN; CELEBRATE THE GOOD: Because of the impact of cancer in my life, I can say truthfully that a million good things have happened. It has helped me to focus on the good and believe that anything is possible. It has confirmed my belief in God. It has shown me that family is not a right, but a gift, and that families are built in a lot of different ways. It has revealed my passion for life.

Life is full of choices. Thriving through adversity is one of them.

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  1. K Macdonald says

    Heather’s 5 principles fit for living a good life, not just for battling cancer. Thanks for the focus on living regardless of your current health.

  2. Debra Darvick says

    My thoughts exactly, K Macdonald. Heather your principles are golden reminders to us all. Thriving is what we should all be doing. Thank you for putting it all down in black and white.