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Graciousness in Cancer


A lesson in the power of graciousness for the hardheaded cancer patient.

I’m not particularly philosophical, but my experiences with metastatic breast cancer (I refuse to call it a “journey”—I’ll save that designation for more pleasant things, like learning to kayak or even, heck, raising kids) have brought home to my heart many lessons that I probably should have learned long ago.

Recently, I went to visit my parents, who live across the country from me. My mom, who is a breast cancer survivor and one of the toughest women I’ll ever meet, had just faced down another health emergency. A subdural hematoma, most likely due to age and 13 years of blood thinner use (and I’m heading into year two, so there’s another cautionary note for me), had left her needing physical and occupational therapy. When you are a strong woman, used to getting around on your own and generally making your own decisions, having someone teaching you how to stand and walk could be an unwelcome prospect.

My mother, though, decided that she was not going to fight against what the therapists were telling her. She’d decided that, this time, she would listen and do what they said.

And one of the things they said is that she would need another person to help her with some of the exercises. I know my mother — I guess I can admit to being equally hardheaded — and I wondered if she’d be able to follow-through on the therapists’ orders.

Watching her grapple with accepting help made me think about how important graciousness is in the lives of patients. There are times when we need help with so many things, anything from cleaning the house during a rough chemotherapy to a pep talk when feeling down. We need help from the nurses who have seen so much pain and failure, but still manage to bring hope and cheer into the workplace everyday. We need kindness and understanding from our family and friends, even though they are suffering right there next to us.

It would be easy to get short-tempered and silent when you feel so dependent on others both for physical care and emotional support. And it’s easy to turn help and concern away out of stubbornness or a belief that no one can possibly understand how you are feeling. It certainly has been a risk for me.

But watching my mom accept the help offered, even when I knew it was not an easy choice, and to do so without denying that the help was necessary and appreciated, reminded me of the power of graciousness.

One of my defining memories was when I played well during a middle school soccer game. A teammate’s parent congratulated me on my playing and, after shaking my head, I said something along the lines of “I didn’t really play well. I should have…”

The parent just looked at me and said, “It’s okay to just say ‘Thank you.’” Having cancer gives you plenty of opportunities to say thank you, to everyone from the neighbor who drops by to the hospital technician who knows how to reassure you before a test. The trick, as I am learning over and over again, is to do it graciously and from the heart.

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