Breast cancer – any chronic health condition, for that matter – is tough. It can scare you, make you feel frustrated, resentful of those in good health, and just plain mad at the world. I’m no Pollyanna, but let’s bury those feelings for a few moments, and get into the spirit of Thanksgiving…
If you celebrate Thanksgiving, no doubt by this time you’re thinking about food. Maybe you need to pick up the turkey today; perhaps start planning the order in which things cycle through the oven Thursday.
Or, if you’re going to someone else’s house, and have been charged with bringing dessert – time to get our that favorite apple pie recipe!
But what if you’re dealing with breast cancer this year? Your life has been totally torn apart: by the physical toll of treatment, the emotional trauma of fear and anger, and all the disruptions that cancer brings to life as we know it.
Other years, you might sit back contentedly with a glass of wine at the end of Thanksgiving Day, and give thanks: for friends and family, for warmth and food, or maybe just that the long day is over.
But this year? Wine increases cancer risk; turkey makes you queasy; and friends and family spent all day gingerly edging around you, trying to help and not knowing how.
Man, not much to be thankful for, huh?
Well, step back. Away from the ravages of chemo and surgery, the pain of radiation, the soul-searing fears that regularly awaken you at 2 a.m. Take a broad view; like the mountain climber who finally emerges from the dark forest to find a spectacular 100-mile panorama, you’ll discover that despite everything, there are still things for which you can be grateful. Like these:
1) You’re alive. That’s job #1, with cancer – and so far, you’ve made it. Keep up the good work!
2) The medical team that’s saving your life. The oncologist, radiologist, or surgeon (choose your favorite), the one who takes the time to listen to you when you’re scared. The nurse who clued you in about chewing ice before chemo, and NOT bringing your favorite snacks. The woman in the hospital financial office who helped you unravel the miserably complicated insurance claim. The researchers who discovered Herceptin.
It takes more than a village to treat cancer: it takes you, and a virtual city of support folks. They’re working for you every day; be thankful.
3) The love around you. People often have mysterious ways of expressing love; it’s tremendously difficult to open our hearts and let others see inside. But know that so many of those you deal with every day love you, in big and little ways.
Some actually say it: “I love you.” Some bring chicken soup, and vacuum your house; some email you a joke every morning.
And some desert you: their love is strong enough to cause pain, but not strong enough to weather it, so they disappear. Maybe you’ll find one another again; maybe not. But understand, if they didn’t care enough to feel your pain, they wouldn’t be avoiding you.
4) Internet access. Really. If you’re reading this, you almost certainly have a way to connect with the entire world. In the middle of the night, when you’re sure the chemo isn’t working and you’ll never live to see your children grow up, there’s someone online, somewhere, to connect with. A burden shared is a burden lightened. Facebook, your friend circle on Google+, the online cooking community you joined… reach out. Someone will be there. Even at 2 a.m.
5) Simple, basic necessities. Do you have a roof over your head? Food? Heat? Say thanks.
Maybe your living quarters aren’t palatial, you can’t afford the salmon you’d like to eat twice a week, and you have to keep your thermostat set at 55°F because the cost of heating oil is breaking the bank, but you (hopefully) DO have some form of these basic necessities. Which, in other parts of the world, are luxuries. In many countries, people have nothing except clothing. They forage for food every day, and sleep on the ground at night. Now imagine having cancer, as well. Be grateful for the “necessities” we take for granted every day.
6) Music. I’d wager the vast majority of us enjoy some kind of music. Maybe you’re energized by classic loud rock. Perhaps you meditate to a Tibetan chant. Garth Brooks, anyone?
Me, I’m listening to piano and fiddle music as I write this, bittersweet ballads of the Civil War era. Whatever unclenches your belly, softens your shoulders, and makes you happy – be thankful you have ears (and an MP3 player).
7) Homemade cranberry sauce. HAD to add this one. It’s so easy, and SO much better than the canned stuff. Here’s how:
Pour a 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries (or thawed, if they’ve been frozen) into a pan on the stove. Add 3/4 cup sugar, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 to 1 cup water (use the greater amount of water for a softer sauce). Bring to a boil; turn down to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until about half the cranberries have popped. Remove from the heat, and refrigerate until ready to serve; the sauce will thicken as it stands. YUM.
8) The innocence of kids. Isn’t it refreshing to have the little girl in the hospital walk up to you and say, “How come you don’t have any hair?” So much easier to deal with than the averted, pained glances you get from strangers on the street. Or even the sad, loving words you hear from your friends: “You look fine. Really. It’ll grow back in no time...”
Yeah, it’ll grow back. One of these months. In the meantime – thank the little children for asking their normal questions, and making YOU feel normal.
9) The distraction of numbers. Numbers of people, that is. Thanksgiving Day is one of the great clan-gathering occasions of the year. If you’re not with family, you’re with friends. If not friends, perhaps a large group at the local church or senior center.
There’s safety in numbers; everyone’s got your back. You can let go of your cancer worries for a few hours, and simply immerse yourself in the typical whirlwind of Thanksgiving activity: laughter, dishes, foolishness, nostalgia, football…
10) Your heart. Or soul. Or whatever part of you can get beyond the physical and emotional pain of cancer, and arrive at a calmer, happier place. Maybe you pray. Meditate. Take long walks. Whatever method you use to achieve inner peace, be thankful you discovered it.
But what if you haven’t found your way to that peace yet? Keep trying. Here’s a mantra that’s helped many women I know: “Cancer is a rock in the path. Step over it: the path will still be there.” You’ll find hands reaching out to help you, all along the way.
And for that, we can be truly thankful.