Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not going to tell you that I am grateful to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I am not going to say that the lessons I have learned during my months of treatment have been worth the stuff I’ve been through. I certainly didn’t feel grateful when I found out that I would have to have chemotherapy, radiation, and infusions of Herceptin over the course of an entire year. But it wasn’t long after my treatment began that I realized that feeling and expressing gratitude might be the strongest medicine I could give myself to help me through everything that lay ahead.
I made the decision to be quite public about my diagnosis; posting the news on Facebook and starting a blog. I had known friends who were very private about their diagnoses and told only those closest to them. I realized, almost immediately, that this was something I didn’t want to go through alone. In one of my early blog posts, I made the point that, now that I had been diagnosed, my friends should be prepared for me to freely wield the “C’ card whenever appropriate – or even “just because”. It was my first glimpse at a shred of something I could be thankful for.
Prior to my diagnosis, I was also the kind of person who felt that people could either “take me or leave me.” As I witnessed the outpouring of love and support I received from friends and family right from the get-go, I discovered, much to my surprise, just how many people really cared about my health issues and were praying for me to get better. It gave me a tremendous sense of calm; a feeling of being cared for, and at a time when everything felt chaotic and out of control, I was surely grateful for that.
Over the course of my chemotherapy, I was visited by way too many side effects and with each one came another opportunity to be grateful. When I had horrible lower GI problems, I was grateful that I wasn’t throwing up. When I totally lost my sense of taste, I was grateful that everything didn’t taste metallic. And yet, a few weeks later, when everything tasted like wet concrete, I realized that I should have been more grateful when I couldn’t taste anything at all. It seems that gratitude is like that. If you don’t get it the first time, most assuredly, you’ll get another opportunity to give it a try. My taste buds still have not returned to normal, but boy, will I be grateful when they do. Its been made clear to me that the flip side of gratitude is taking things for granted.
There were many days when I thought I could barely harness enough energy to get from the bedroom to the kitchen, let alone muster the inner strength to feel gratitude. I thought of all the hard times in my life when I had found gratitude in saying, “At least it’s not cancer!” So much for that! On the days that I asked myself, “What could be worse than this?” my mind would wander to all of those situations that could, in fact, be worse. Sadly, I would recall many dear friends who had lost their battle with this disease. My friend, Tony, died after a heroic fight with liver cancer and I will never forget how his final days were filled with as much grace, graciousness and gratitude as he had lived. These thoughts made gratitude come easy. And anyone who has ever sat in an infusion room getting an IV drip knows that across the room there could be someone going through something tougher than you. I discovered that compassion and gratitude are constant companions.
A quick Google search will produce tons of research on gratitude and how study after study has proven that people who practice an “attitude of gratitude” or what others call “grateful thinking” report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives and are more optimistic about the future.
But that’s just it. Gratitude is a practice. It is skill that has to be developed, and when you don’t feel well, it doesn’t come easy. When I was too angry or too sad or in too much pain and I couldn’t find anything to be grateful for, I would sarcastically write in my journal, “I’m grateful for the anger!” With practice, I came to understand that I actually could be grateful for all my emotions because each was there to teach me something. In many ways, gratitude is a verb. It requires our attention and our action. On the day of my diagnosis and for many days after, gratitude was hard-to-come-by, and yet, with some time and perspective, I came to realize that few things were as important.
6 Ways to Find and Express Gratitude
- Keep a gratitude journal and set aside a time each day to write down at least 3 things you are grateful for. When all I could stomach was Cocoa Krispies, I was grateful for Cocoa Krispies, milk and a spoon.
- Start a blog and share your experience with friends and family. They will feel grateful and honored that you are sharing your story, and it will give you lots of opportunities to thank them in return.
- Thank your medical team; the doctors and nurses, appointment schedulers and hospital volunteers and then, thank them again. Learn everyone’s name, and take the time to tell them that their care and support makes a difference.
- Spend the $7.00 for a store-bought thank-you card for your husband, mother, best friend or sibling. We often forget that those closest to us are going through something pretty terrifying, often with little support from others.
- Search Google Images or Pinterest for “gratitude quotes and sayings” and re-post them on your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You’ll be surprised at how many LIKES you get.
- Join a support group and share with other patients how you are struggling to find gratitude. Others will be grateful for your honesty.