What Are You Thankful For Today?
Yes, breast cancer is a bear. Even the fear of it – a mysterious lump, a strange rash – can turn you inside out. But having cancer can also bring a sense of peace… and make you realize all you’re thankful for.
A cancer diagnosis is one of the most electrifying moments of your life. And not in a good way.
“You have cancer.” Maybe the words are muffled in a sympathetic blanket of “I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you,” and “Cancer treatment is so much better now than it used to be,” but the fact remains: you’ve just been handed a potential death sentence.
And all of your blithe assumptions of a long and uneventfully healthy life come crashing down. You enter a black emotional cloud that may last for years.
But thankfully, for some of us – I daresay for many of us – that cloud lifts quickly. The human spirit being what it is, we pull our socks up, square our shoulders, and march forward: into the life-saving slash/poison/burn of surgery, chemo, and radiation.
When I learned I had cancer, I’d walked into the radiologist’s office on a beautiful early May day. As I walked out, the day was still beautiful, all primary colors: brilliant blue sky, green grass, a yellow stripe of daffodils winding from hospital to parking lot.
I felt like I should cry. Not that I wanted to; I’m a generally positive person, and slow to ruffle. But I cried anyway, more to get it over with than anything else. Then I got in the car and drove home: to a husband, a teenage son, a job… my life. And very quickly, I’d examined the wrenching twist that life had undergone, accepted it, and started down a new path – one with an unknown destination.
Just like that, I became a cancer survivor.
Now, 10 ½ cancer-free years later, I look back and recognize all the things cancer has made me thankful for. So many… but here are my top five.
The inherent goodness of people. As soon as I was diagnosed, the unseen telepathy that binds so many of us women sprang to life. I told one friend; suddenly, it seemed everyone knew I had cancer. And so began months of hugs, phone calls, emails, cards, and flowers, offers of car rides, cooked meals, and helping hands – even from strangers.
I’d expected my family, friends, and work colleagues to be there for me and, for the most part, they were. What I hadn’t expected was the caring of strangers. I remember standing in a long airport security line, my bald chemo head shielded by a baseball cap. As I turned around to grab my suitcase, the woman in back of me caught my eye.
“Chemo?” she asked. I nodded. She reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “You’ll get through it,” she said. At which point we were shuttled in different directions and she was gone, never to be seen again. But her words – four simple, heartfelt words from a complete stranger – have been with me ever since.
The skill and caring of the medical community.
As you sit slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, reeling from a cancer diagnosis, the wheels of the medical community are already turning. You don’t know it, but someone’s already issued you a ticket to ride – and the train’s about to leave the station.
Over the next however many months, you have the chance to experience the very best that medical research, the pharmaceutical industry, and our education system have to offer: the strategies, drugs, and people who’ll help you fight cancer. (Trust me, if you’re an American, you’ll thank God we live in one of the most medically advanced nations on earth.)
And while it may seem that it’s the scalpel, the drugs, and the radiation that’s killing those cancer cells, remember all of that gear is nothing without the people behind it. And the people behind cancer are, in my experience, some of the most caring you’ll ever meet.
Sure, you may run into a preoccupied oncologist, or a cold-mannered night nurse. But in general, people who choose to go into hematology-oncology – cancer care – are an endless font of… well, true and deep caring.
Whether it’s the hug you get from the oncology nurse, the free Reiki treatment from the volunteer in the chemo area, or simply the extra 15 minutes your surgeon takes from her busy schedule to get you past the shock of mastectomy and into reconstruction research – you feel the love. Appreciate it. Savor it. And be thankful.
Food. If you’re a foodie, someone who’s never met a meal she didn’t like, cancer can be tough – especially chemo. Suddenly, you’re actively nauseous for days at a time; or at the least, not hungry. Maybe everything you eat tastes like tin foil. Or perhaps the sores in your throat and mouth are so painful that even the thought of chewing and swallowing makes you sweat.
Gradually, once chemo is over, your pleasure in eating returns. Maybe not entirely – you may end up associating certain foods with cancer, and find they’ve lost their appeal. (Hint: don’t enjoy your favorite ice cream while on chemo.) But you may also discover that the pleasure you take in food is even greater than it was in the past – now that you’ve experienced its denial.
The shock of having cancer. Yes, shock can be a good thing. It jolts you out of your routine, and can set you on a new life path.
“Yeah, no kidding, cancer can make my life a living hell,” you might be thinking. But flip that coin over, and realize that cancer can empower you to make the positive changes you longed for – but didn’t realize you had the strength or will to make. Cancer shows you how very strong you are, both physically, and mentally.
Get up early to hit the gym for the exercise your doctor says you need to help prevent recurrence? Check.
Mend (or sever) that long, painful relationship with a family member, one you stopped liking with years ago and now can barely remember why? Check.
Become assertive at work? Act like a leader? Set a positive example by refusing to join in the water-cooler gossip? Check and double-check.
As one of my friends told me right up front, “Cancer can change your life – if you let it.” Go ahead – let it.
Permanent takeaways. Here are Five Big Lessons cancer taught me:
•Life is short; enjoy it.
•Don’t sweat the small stuff. Really. Just don’t.
•Lose the control thing; people will happily be there to catch you when you fall.
•Reach out and touch someone. The power of a hug, a hand on the shoulder, and a pat on the back are enormous.
•Love one another. As the Beatles said long ago, “Love is the answer.” It is. Believe it, and live it.