After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I wrote thank you letters to my oncology care team which, to my surprise, helped put me at ease.
Cancer tends to throw people for a loop — it upends their worlds, introducing chaos and uncertainty. After a period of time, once all the shock and fear have subsided a bit, people tend to start talking about gratitude.What does this mean, and what does it look like?
For some people, they come to a place after cancer where they realize that stress is unhealthy and they purposely look for ways to de-stress, relax and unwind, physically and mentally.This might mean doing something like meditating, or it could mean establishing a gratitude practice of deliberately choosing to look for little things each day that can be enjoyed and appreciated: the sunset, the sound of children’s laughter, making memories with family — all those little moments that, collectively, comprise the whole greater package of “life”.
But this realization often happens later, after a lot of self-reflection and time has gone by. Immediately after a cancer diagnosis, it seems nearly impossible to be gratefulfor anything.
After my own diagnosis, I was acutely aware that this might happen, and I wanted to avoid this tendency.Instead of taking an abstract view of gratitude, I interpreted the idea of gratitude quite literally. What gratitude meant to me, at the time, while I was in the thick of it all and recovering from anesthesia and surgery, was that I needed to make a list of people to thank. Most people, if they are the type to write thank-you notes, probably remember to thank their doctors: the surgeon, the oncologist, and perhaps the nurses, especially the infusion room chemo nurses. Don’t get me wrong – these people absolutely deserve to be thanked.
However, I also wanted to bring attention to those team members who don’t typically get the same sort of respect and acknowledgement for their part in my care. I started with my primary care physician, without whom the idea of starting cancer screening would never have been on my radar. (Like a lot of people, I thought that I was “too young” for cancer!) I am SO incredibly grateful that she analyzed the many conflicting sets of cancer screening recommendations, and she chose the one that advised that I start mammograms at the earliest possible age of 40, as I was average risk, and I had no real family history of it (at the time). I wanted to be sure that she knew how very grateful I was that she pushed me to make that appointment and get that mammogram. Without her, I never would have found cancer early — I never would have even thought about it.
I wrote notes to the radiologist who initially read my mammogram, as well as the radiologist who performed the biopsy. These are members of the medical team who tend to be forgotten about since they are fairly removed from direct patient care.
I also wrote a thank you note to the mammography and ultrasound technicians, without whom the diagnosis could not have been made. Mammography techs typically don’t receive physical thank you letters from patients, as this type of nicety is generally reserved for the physicians and nurses (though it definitely shouldn’t be). However, I fully believe that this thank you note meant more to my mammography tech than the one I sent my surgeon (who has never mentioned it to me).
On the other hand, every time I am at the breast center and that mammography technician sees me, even if it isn’t for a scheduled appointment with her, she makes a specific point to seek me out and ask me how I’m doing and tell me that my thank you note is still hanging in her office, even years later, serving as a tangible memento and a daily reminder that she absolutely makes a difference in people’s lives.
Additionally, I wrote notes to the nurse navigator who held my hand during the biopsy and the surgery scheduler who coordinated two surgeons’ schedules to get me on the operating room schedule as soon as was humanly possible. I also thanked the pre-op and post-op nurses and the nurses on the surgical ward.
I repeated this process many times during my recoveries from eight total surgeries during my cancer journey. Ultimately, I wrote 15 thank you letters after that first surgery. They were, hopefully, beneficial to the letters’ recipients.
What I didn’t anticipate is how helpful the process would be for me. Having something very concrete to focus on during a very tumultuous period in my life was grounding for me, and it allowed me to feel that I had accomplished something worthwhile during a time when I desperately needed to feel productive — and grateful.
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