My Treasured Box of Cancer Greetings


I recently came across a shoebox full of cards sent to me after I was diagnosed with cancer. The love expressed by others was uplifting to me.

One thing I have enjoyed after retirement is cleaning my house. You should see the basement, newly cleaned and organized. My bookshelf is more orderly, too, the porches more often swept. Sometimes for me, cleaning is like meditation. 

I have also been organizing and/or discarding stuff to make life easier for my son when I one day pass on. I hope that is not so soon, especially as I remain mindful of the 12 years that have passed since a mammogram identified diffuse microcalcifications. On the anniversary of this day, which initiated a complex series of treatments, I mark a cancerversary among many.

One thing that made the ordeal easier, from diagnosis onwards, was the kindness of friends, family members and colleagues. So many kind words were spoken and written. While emails dematerialized and phone calls came and went, there is a shoebox containing cards I have not been able to abandon in my efforts to declutter. It has moved from here to there during efforts to organize as I tell myself it is just a small shoebox, even as it overflows with love.

Recently, I pulled out the shoebox with its cards and read anew, realizing I should share some of the advice I got that year, advice that remains in my heart after all this time. Kind words were adjunctive therapy, I believe, alongside chemo and radiation.

“Strength does not come from physical capacity,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote. “It comes from an indomitable will.”

No, I did not get a card from Gandhi. These words were on a card from a cousin, who also included a note “that I hope will give you hope.” D’s card shows just how precious a family is, even relatives in distant states, when we need to keep our spirits up. 

Another example of how my family’s words helped is from Aunt V, who would die of cancer not too many years after she wrote these words to me: “There isn’t a day goes by that you are not in my thoughts, and when I think of you, I say a prayer.”

An old college friend, a breast cancer survivor, wrote, among other things, “It is amazing about how effective breast cancer treatments are today, even compared to those that were available a few years ago.” G also advised, “Remember that old Gloria Gaynor song from the 1970s? ‘I Will Survive!’ Trite, but true.” Hearing from old friends who were surviving breast cancer was so heartening.

New friends from closer by sent cards too. One drawn by a child I now know as a young woman, encouraged me through more challenging days of my cancer journey, including the month I lost my mother. The drawing on one side includes a cat, flowers, a sketch of me holding hands with my son, the world, a peace symbol and a heart with wings. Images of “joy, peace, love” are reminders to be comforted by what is familiar to us. I am thankful to R for coloring this card for her parents A and J to give to me to cherish.

And there were cards from women in a wider circle, including mothers of my son’s childhood friends and colleagues. It was wonderful to hear from J, who wrote, “I, too, fought breast cancer 10 years ago. Have courage, have strength — you will beat this — call us if there is anything we do.”

A work colleague, D, wrote: “I am thinking of you and praying for your strength and health.”

M, a community member, sent cards over the year, one with a promise I needed: “Spring flowers will be popping up soon!”

Many shared phone numbers and promises to help. When I look at these offers of time and assurance now, I recollect how I was so preoccupied with what I had to do, with work and treatment and family life, that I did not always reach back to people who reached out. I might have a bit more. Still, most importantly, their attention made me feel less alone. 

Reflecting on cards from diagnosis to the end of treatment 14 months later, with a bittersweet birthday and my mother’s death in between, continues to give me heart. Thus, I am not ready to toss the magic shoebox. I plan to keep the sweet memories I can hold in my hands a little longer.

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