Cancer makes everyone stupider – and smarter

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

A professor recently told me that he instantly became 50% stupider when his doctor told him that he had cancer.

He said that his own research in his field of study is careful and thoughtful. When he learned that he had cancer, the “careful part” of his brain shut down. Rather than thinking logically about his cancer, he thought – or reacted – just from his gut.

This isn’t unusual. I suspect that emotions outweigh logic in most people immediately after a cancer diagnosis.

Once the initial shock wears off, the logic usually reasserts itself. But not always.

I’ve talked with lots of really smart people who don’t apply their well-honed critical thinking skills to their own cancer. They too easily believe what’s hyped in the media or what their cousin recommends based on his experience with a different cancer 15 years ago.

I say this not to poke fun at academics, but to reassure the rest of us that even the smartest people get rattled when facing cancer or any serious illness.

I’m also in favor of listening to one’s gut when making important decisions. But, please, gather some objective information first.

At the Cancer Resource Center, we don’t give medical advice, but we often serve as sounding boards when people are thinking through their options. When you put your thinking into words, the logic – or lack of logic – often becomes clearer.

It’s difficult for a loved one to be a neutral sounding board. They have too much skin in the game. But friends can be an invaluable resource by listening and asking questions to clarify the patient’s thinking, just as professors do on a daily basis when working with their students.

And while cancer seems to make everyone stupider in the short-term, I think most people affected by cancer would say that it made them smarter in the long-term. Some things are only learned by experience, and cancer is one unforgettable experience.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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