Cancer survivor: Learning to receive a compliment gracefully

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Linda Ryan

By Linda Ryan

Why is it so difficult for many of us -- especially women -- to receive a compliment? 

For those of us who've undergone cancer treatment and endured changes in our appearance, accepting a compliment can be especially challenging. 

After all, it seems to be most people's natural reflex to put themselves down when paid a compliment. Think of how many times you have heard someone or been that someone who did not receive a compliment well.

Learning about compliments from another mother
I was recently paid a compliment about my sons. They were volunteering at Vacation Bible School at our church. My older son, Matthew, was a crew leader while my younger son, Ethan, was his assistant.  

One day, the woman responsible for the volunteers told me how well Matthew was doing as a crew leader and that she didn't have to worry about him. She said that he was mature and doing a wonderful job and that she thought of him as an adult in the group.   

I responded by saying thank you and then said, "Because I'm his mother, I'm not sure that I am objective, but I think he is great, too."

A short while later, she said, "I really like how you received that compliment."

The mother of four young children, she said that she finds herself not doing a good job of accepting compliments about her children. I am sure it's because she has the knowledge of how they can be at home. 

My grandmother has often said that what you want are children who are "street angels and home devils." They save their best behavior for the public. They can't be perfect all of the time!  

Learning to accept compliments during chemotherapy
During my chemotherapy treatments, people often said, "You look great." 

I think people were shocked that I didn't lose my hair and saying "you look great" was a way of trying to verbalize that diplomatically. I guess I did look good for a cancer patient when I was out in public. My hair wasn't visibly falling out, I was dressed in normal clothing, my coloring was what they remembered, so yes, I looked great.   

Similar to the analogy with children, my appearance was "street angel, home devil."  

But during the week after chemo, I'm sure I looked anything but great. I was confined to my bed for days and was lucky to have the strength to shower. I certainly wasn't styling my hair or putting on makeup, and only on my best days was I able to brush my teeth. Yes, I looked great.  

This actually became source of humor for me with a woman I met because of cancer. She had metastatic breast cancer and she too, looked great. She recently passed away. Although I did not know her well, what I remember most about her was her beautiful smile. To me, she looked great because her smile radiated. It had nothing to do with her hair, makeup or clothing. It was her smile.  

A cancer survivor learns to accept a compliment
I am 45 years old, and people tell me that I look great. I don't know if it's a compliment because they think I really do look good for my age or if they think I look good because I am a three-time cancer survivor and maybe I should look broken.   

Whatever the explanation, I now say thank you when people tell me I look great.

After all, I am thankful for my life and that I survived treatment. But more than that, my identity isn't my appearance. It's so much more. Focusing on the outside appearance and what I don't have seems petty and unattractive.  

Admittedly, this hasn't been easy for me. I am very aware of my response when I don't receive a compliment well. I am still working on refraining from launching into the thoughts that are lingering in my head about what I think about my hair or my skin or the outfit that I might be wearing. I am working on accepting the compliment gracefully.

Linda Ryan thought she had checked cancer off her list. Having just run her first marathon, it was hard to imagine that her cervical cancer had returned after seven years. Cancer chose the wrong woman. She was ready to battle cancer for the third time with health, laughter and friendship. Follow Linda Ryan at

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