I have friends who’ve seemingly lived in a state of gratitude much of their lives. I’m not that person. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been grateful for plenty of things, but my default was not toward thoughtful gratitude. I gravitated more toward acceptance of what I’d been given without a great deal of reflection.
It’s fair to say that cancer has changed that.
I still accept what I’ve been given – the good and the bad – but my tendency over time has changed to actively acknowledging how grateful I am for all of it. For me, it’s another way of finding peace, even as I raise my voice for a better understanding of what life is like for those of us living with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer.
For me, gratitude is the perfect feeling to accompany my life with cancer. Gratitude is so large it can hold contradictions. It’s not hard to be grateful for something while acknowledging that I still feel pain and sorrow. It doesn’t make me choose between being happy or being sad—it just encompasses both at once. It’s one of those “both/and” emotions.
The start of this school year has given me lots of opportunities to reflect on what I’m grateful for, even in the midst of trying to adjust with relative dignity and not a tsunami of tears to change. My oldest child has started her junior year in college, my middle child has started her freshman year in college and my youngest is now in high school. When I was diagnosed, my youngest was in sixth grade and I promised myself I’d live at least until I could see what kind of man he would be. I still don’t have an answer to that question, but the start of this school year, in particular, fills me with immense gratitude that I’ve been able to be a part of such big changes in my kids’ lives.
That opportunity to still be here means I’m also grateful for the oncologist who was skeptical of my original biopsy results, the nurses who don’t minimize my fear of needles, the staff that waves hello as I walk by and the patients and advocates I’ve met because of my diagnosis—people who aren’t afraid to get close even when there’s a chance any one of us may die more quickly than expected. Witnessing that fearlessness, whether professional or a personality quirk, is also a lesson in being grateful for whatever life brings for however long it may last.
I won’t lie and say I have no worries or fears — I also have an endless list of those — but it’s also true that my ever-growing list of gratitudes continues to expand. I know this because as I lie awake at night, I fall asleep before I can name them all, and that’s a side effect I can live with.