When you’re dealing with cancer, much of your life feels very dark – like this month of December, and its shortest days of the year. Yet, just as the soft glow of holiday candles lights the dark winter night, the few simple gifts that cancer offers can illuminate the shadowy corners of your own life – if you let them.
“'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
“'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
“And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
“'T'will be in the valley of love and delight.”
-Simple Gifts, written by Elder Joseph Brackett at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, 1848.
No doubt you’ve heard this tune, if not the words. It’s become world famous, appearing everywhere from the Irish musical "Lord of the Dance;" to Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring;" to President Obama’s inauguration, where it was memorably played by a quartet including Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.
Originally conceived by the Shakers as a dance tune, it’s evolved over its 150+-year history into an anthem of hope, peace, and tranquility. Its almost nursery-rhyme simplicity is a comfort in our increasingly frantic world – a world made more desperate still by dealing with cancer.
Cancer is devastating any time of the year; but it’s more difficult during the winter holidays, that stretch of time from mid-November to the end of December when families and friends gather for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Chanukah, and New Year’s.
“Everyone’s having fun,” you think. “Baking cookies, stringing lights, hosting parties… and I don’t feel like doing any of that. Even if I did, I’m not up for it. All I can manage is to go to treatment, keep things going at work and at home, and rest. It’s not fair.”
No, breast cancer isn’t fair. You didn’t earn it; you don’t deserve it. But, you drew the short straw; so you need to deal with it as best you can. And to me, that means choosing to be happy.
Yes, CHOOSING to be happy. There’s not much you can control in this life; not good health, obviously. But whatever happens, you can choose your attitude.
I choose happiness; now, and during the past 10 years, as I went through three surgeries, chemo, radiation, pneumonia, lymphedema, and 9 years of various drugs, each with its own special side effects.
I remember driving home from the hospital after my first chemo treatment; wondering how long it would be before the vomiting started, and when my hair would fall out, and whether I’d look like the pale, wasted people I’d just seen that morning in the chemo waiting room.
Exiting the highway, I noticed bright red letters spray-painted on the concrete underpass. “I LOVE”…
I love… who? The object of the graffiti artist’s affection had been scrubbed out. Perhaps he changed his mind; maybe the DPW crew had only gotten that far before quitting for the day.
But in a blinding moment of revelation, I realized this: love doesn’t need an object. Simply loving is enough: I love.
I decided to apply those two words whenever and wherever I could. Sitting in the chemo room, Red Devil dripping into my veins, I loved the nurses who were so solicitous, and the volunteers who chose to spend time in the infusion suite giving chair massages and Reiki.
Deathly ill with pneumonia a week before Christmas, lying in a sterile hospital room, I loved the young interns who came in to “practice” on me. They didn’t get to see too many cancer patients with neutropenia-turned-pneumonia; their teacher/doctor urged them to look at my healing scars, my bald head, listen to my labored breathing. I was in a teaching hospital, and had agreed to be included in any appropriate “lesson plans;” and I loved being able to help these bright young doctors-in-training.
Later, the worst of treatment behind me, I volunteered for a new program at my cancer center. "BeFriend" paired women who’d been through breast cancer treatment with women just starting. Are you a 50-year-old trying to decide whether to have a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy? How about a 65-year-old in great health wondering how much Taxol is going to affect your ability to work? BeFriend has someone for you to connect with.
I discovered I loved helping women with breast cancer.
And shortly thereafter, I found HealthCentral, and started writing and answering questions on this site. That was 5 ½ years ago, and being able to reach out to women virtually, all over the world, fills me with an enormous measure of joy every day.
Not many people know that there are other verses to "Simple Gifts." Here’s one that speaks to me:
'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be fair
‘Tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air
“And each day we walk on the path that we choose
“'Tis a gift we pray we never shall lose.”
Be simple. Enjoy the morning air. Choose your path, and embrace it.
Indeed, cancer has given me gifts far more memorable than the havoc it’s wreaked on my life.
The gifts of compassion. Connection. Knowledge to share.
Gifts that, indeed, I “pray I never shall lose.”
Happy holidays! And here's to a peaceful, healthy year for one and all.