Cancer and the Gift of Gratitude


This time of year, one of the traditions that coincides with resolutions, is the reflection on what we have to be thankful for. This experience — counting blessings, giving thanks, the gratitude attitude — can be challenging.

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” - John Milton

The poet Rumi once wrote, “Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.”

I put this cloak on the day I was diagnosed with cancer and I have to say that not only did it fit like a well-worn garment, I looked good in it. When wearing it, the important things in life seemed to spring up all around me. What once only occupied a small corner of my field of vision became the background against which all of life's happenings were cast. Mindless moments spent waiting became meditations of solitude, helping to dissolve stress. In gratitude, no stone was left unturned as even passing encounters with strangers became opportunities to reconnect with everyday life beyond a cancer diagnosis. The simple things transformed into essential reminders of the delicate and intricate wonder of life.

I would like to say that I've worn this cloak since that day, however the truth is, more frequently than I like to admit, it goes back into the closet. During these times, I once again sweat the small stuff; petty annoyances unnerve me, my fuse grows shorter, and I yell at traffic, as if my travel needs should be everyone’s concern. Minus the framework of thankfulness, epiphanies give way to confusion, awe turns to fear and wonder gives way to questioning the point of it all.

This time of year, one of the traditions that coincides with resolutions, is the reflection on what I have to be thankful for. This experience can be challenging. In my personal and professional talks with other cancer survivors, they often describe an experience that I’ve come to know all too well.

This experience can be summed up as, “Cancer made me appreciate the people and things in my life more than ever, but now I can’t seem to stop taking them for granted.”

The question that often follows is some form of, “Why can’t I just be grateful all the time?”

My therapeutic answer to the question is this: “Life happened. Sometimes life hurts, and it's hard to be thankful while in pain.”

So as not to leave someone feeling as if I just handed him or her the parental nugget of, “Life’s not fair, so suck it up,” I will point out the following observations that came to me through the cancer journey:

  1. Cancer doesn’t make us see what’s meaningful; we see it when our attention turns away from the minutia and trivial distractions that surround us.
  2. We don’t ever lose our appreciation, but we can misplace it.
  3. Taking life for granted is essentially our culturally-induced default mode — we are trained to overlook the essential.
  4. Being thankful is a habit that grows stronger the more we engage in it.
  5. It’s OK if, in the moment, the only thing we can think of to be grateful for is the fact that we’re aware that we’re not being very appreciative.

Trial and error has taught me that the best response to someone who’s struggling to complete his or her gratitude list is, “I know what that struggle feels like.”

I save the speeches on how we know, through psychological research, that gratitude is good medicine. I will not preach about the physiological impact that holding thankful thoughts has on the heart. I know from my own experience, being told to be thankful, rings hollow and the look that ensues is often that of a little child who’s been scolded for not being more grateful.

As I look back on another year of survivorship and the approach of the sixth anniversary of my surgery, I’ve come to the realization that my cloak of gratitude is always in fashion. While I may not experience Milton’s, “transcendent moments of awe,” while wearing it, I am reminded of what’s important.

For that, I’m very grateful.

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