As the coronavirus pandemic has upended society and instilled an existential dread in many people, cancer survivor Kate Bowler, PhD, a historian at Duke Divinity School, spoke with The New York Times about how her experience with cancer could help guide others struggling with the uncertainties brought on by the virus.

In 2015, when Bowler was a new mother, she was diagnosed with incurable cancer and was thrust onto a new path, one governed by uncertainty.

Bowler, who is wary about the positive-thinking aphorisms so pervasive in American culture, penned the best-selling memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

In her Q&A with the Times, Bowler reflected that her experience living with cancer has been helpful in dealing with the coronavirus.

“I remember that feeling of not remembering I had cancer, and then remembering all over again, every day,” she recalled. “I think so many people are waking up each day and forgetting that they are scared that they can’t hold their mom’s hand in the residential care facility they’re at.”


Bowler countered this example with the fact that the pandemic has provided her with a totally new template of experiences. The coronavirus, she said, pushes up against the scrappy, can-do attitude that defines Americans’ perception of the potential for progress as well as their faith in American exceptionalism. Suddenly, “there’s just not a lot of room between anybody and the very edge,” she says.


Echoing the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, Bowler is particularly critical of popular cultural mandates that people facing cancer or, in the present day, the coronavirus pandemic should always “stay positive.” Such maxims, she argues, rob people of their ability to process and truly experience negative emotions. Furthermore, insisting that people in the throes of great suffering only look for silver linings implies that feeling anything but “positive” is shameful.


Bowler divides her day into two distinct parts, day and night. During the day, she permits herself to engage with her worries. But at night, she endeavors to turn off those anxieties and abstains from searching for more information about her health.


Silly distractions, such as wearing Star Wars pj’s or going down the reality-show rabbit hole are some of Bowler’s favorite coping mechanisms.

As to her particular way of looking on the bright side, she says, “The trick is to find meaning without being taught a lesson. A pandemic is not a judgment, and it will not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving. The second I see all these nurses and doctors going out there trying to save somebody else’s life, I realized it’s such a window into how gorgeous it is to be a human being.”

This trying time in history, she says, is painting into stark relief how much humans need one another.

“We’re learning right now in isolation what interdependence feels like and what a gift it is,” she says.

“And the more we’re apart, the more we realize how much we need each other. We’re allowed to be like beautifully, stupidly needy right now. We’re allowed to FaceTime people and be like, ‘I feel like a mess, and all I want to do is be loved.’”

To read the New York Times article, click here.

For related content, see “From People With Cancer, Coronavirus Lessons for Everyone.”