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Words of Wisdom

Research Project Gains Valuable Insights and Perspective From Those Battling Cancer

Writer / Richard Calautti
Photography Provided

There’s a wealth of wisdom about life that cancer patients and survivors can teach us about gratitude, and the important, simple things in life that we take for granted on a daily basis. We get so caught up in daily trivial matters without realizing that things could be so much worse. We fail to notice that simply being alive and recognizing how lucky us “well” individuals are can be a gift in itself.


I started interviewing cancer patients about the important things in life in 2009, following a period living in London surrounded by people who were stressed, busy, exhausted, and seemingly running around in circles trying to make as much money as possible, yet not particularly happy or satisfied with life. I was one of these people.

I had always conducted my own survey research around various topics, but I was really looking for something deeper, more compelling and life affirming. I wanted to be reminded of what was really important in life, aside from what I was frantically chasing to make me “happy.”

I’d read self-help books for comfort and guidance, but was searching for advice from actual, real people rather than the opinion of a psychologist who, for example, had written text from years of research. I decided to ask advice from people who had faced death, yet had the opportunity to review their life  and consider how they may have lived differently, believing there was some wisdom to be gained through these life-changing circumstances.

This led me to survey cancer patients on a number of topics as a way of helping “well” individuals like myself to realize that our daily struggles were minor and trivial compared to a potentially life-threatening illness. My theory was that a cancer diagnosis must really put the important things in life into focus and provide an insight into life, and that those of us stressed about our comparatively minor daily dramas had forgotten how lucky we are to be healthy and alive.

The survey questions were initially completed locally in Perth, Australia, via a cancer support organization, and have grown internationally since I started a page on Instagram in April 2015 with quotes from patients around the world. Gratitude about life comes through strongly in many of these quotes. The quick, easily read quotes resonated deeply with people on many levels throughout the world.


Patients and healthy individuals responded to these insights, commenting on the difference they’d made to their lives, proving that the human experience and human struggles are universal.

Each quote reflects the patient’s personal story, and there’s so much that those of us living normal, healthy lives can learn about how lucky we are to have the struggles we have. Simply waking up each day and being grateful for the healthy life we have is a gift. Recognizing this fact also makes a positive impact on our life.

The cancer patients and survivors who contribute quotes to my project are real, human, living examples of gratitude, hope, courage and inner strength. Their wisdom was gained from insurmountable pain and fearful circumstances. Yet, through all of this, they teach us enormous lessons around how grateful we should be to face another day, and be thankful for our simple blessings. They provide an appreciation of the real treasures of life, and the importance of love, family, friends, self-belief, gratitude, resilience and never giving up. They so clearly remind us “well” individuals of what really is important in life. They are an invaluable source of hope and courage.

There’s no doubt that a cancer diagnosis can be truly devastating, and every single one of us has been affected by cancer in some way. Cancer patients who have contributed to this project have helped people who suffer mental illness, depression, loneliness and relationship breakdowns, or people simply having a bad day and needing some comfort and guidance.

Looking at life through the eyes of someone who has faced death is one of the clearest ways to realize how grateful we are to have another day, whether that is to experience the daily grind, sit in traffic, or even have the luxury of complaining about the minor and, ultimately, utterly meaningless things to which we devote so much time and energy. For all of it, we should be grateful. It could be a lot worse.

Many participants in the research have since lost their battle to cancer, yet their quotes live on and are a source of hope, courage and inspiration to others facing their own personal struggles, enabling them to truly live life now and recognize that gratitude for daily blessings, no matter how small, really is one of life’s greatest treasures.


For the cancer patients and survivors who have contributed to my project in a way that helps me and others realize what’s important in life, I express my utmost gratitude.

To “well” individuals who are able to reflect on this advice, look at their own lives, and make positive changes to their lives and the lives of those around them, I am grateful.

I started this project as a way of helping myself find some meaning in life. I am grateful for all contributors and followers who keep this project alive.

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