Gratitude. I didn’t know if I would ever feel it again after my diagnosis, but I think that’s because I didn’t really know what it was. Not on any deep level at least. I knew of it in theory, tried to feel it for things like the fact that I had a job in order to feel less reluctant about having to go to work. But for me, it was hard to really know it until all I held dear was threatened, until I realized what exactly I would miss if it all went away.
The first few weeks after my diagnosis were dark. But soon, surgery and appointments and research were taking up much of my time and headspace. Action felt good, action kept me focused on forward momentum, so action I was devoted to. But what happens when things start to slow down? Treatment finishes, appointments slow, and a person has far too much time to think.
The time post-treatment is not something that gets discussed very much, at least not the negative parts of it. Everyone (myself included before I experienced it) thinks that it is a time of excitement, happiness at being finished with treatment and regular trips to the hospital, feeling grateful you got through it, and celebrating with the loved ones who were there to support you through it. And it is a time of all those things; but it is also a time of fear and anxiety and big, scary unknowns. No one really talks about this, and that’s something that needs to change. While you are in active treatment, you are at the hospital regularly to receive treatment (at least once every couple of weeks or even every day if you are in radiation), and you are seeing your oncology team at least once every few weeks too. That means that there are doctors and nurses consistently checking up on you and testing you. You are also receiving treatments that give you confidence and peace of mind. This goes on for months, or even a year or more depending on your treatment plan; and then one day, it all stops. Your oncologist tells you treatment is done, that things look good and that they will see you in six months. I remember this conversation so clearly. It was terrifying. The check ups stop. The reassuring nurses stop. The confidence-inspiring treatments stop. And they send you on your way to “go back to normal”. But it’s not normal, and it never will be again. So, now what?
You adjust to your new normal. It can be hard. Now that you are finished with the physically hardest part of cancer, the part that gets the most attention and that most people have at least a vague understanding of, everyone around you expects that you will return to work, return to your social commitments, and that you will simply move on with your life. But for many of us, though outwardly it appears that we are doing just that, there are deep, internal changes that prevent us from simply carrying on like before. How do we adjust to these changes? How do we deal with the fear and anxiety and PTSD that for so many of us become part of this new “normal” life?
For me, the first step to working with and through these emotions and changes was starting to practice gratitude. I say “practice” here because it really takes just that, practice. You have to start consciously recognizing those things that you are grateful for in your life, big or small. You have to make the intentional choice to stop each and every day and take a moment to feel gratitude for your life and the amazing things in it.
These don’t need to be big things either; trust me, I know how hard it can be to find anything at all to be grateful for during a cancer diagnosis. For me, before I started knowingly practicing gratitude, I first simply noticed a perspective shift in myself. I realized that I was a lot happier than before to see the grass looking green and lush, to see the sky looking beautiful and bright. I noticed that these realizations made me feel content and joyful, and so I started seeking out gratitude in a much more intentional way.
One of the first things I started doing was keeping a gratitude journal. Every night, I write down at least five things from the day I am grateful for, trying as hard as possible not to repeat any that I have written down before. This can be difficult sometimes and I do repeat occasionally, but the majority of the time I am able to find five new things every day that I am grateful for. I had been doing this for a couple of months, and I remember the moment when I flipped back through my journal and it dawned on me the volume of things I had in my life to be grateful for. It can be so easy to forget and to dwell on what we lack or what we wish we didn’t have to deal with, but I had the evidence right there in front of me, the beauty of my life recorded indelibly. It was pretty incredible and extremely joyful. To see page after page of wonderful moments from my recent past is lovely, and I highly recommend it.
After this perspective shift, an absolute flurry of important lessons started to come to me, each and every one bringing me more and more gratitude for this unexpected turn in my life:
- We can do difficult things and we are stronger than we think
- It is so important to cultivate a trust in your own intuition and listen to it, to develop a confidence in yourself and the fact that you know what’s best for you
- Never simply let things happen to you; take an active role in your own health – there is always something that you yourself can do to improve your circumstances, and this helps to deter the feelings of helplessness when they come knocking
- True emotional, mental and spiritual growth in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges is possible and can completely shift your perspective and your life in the best ways
- It is incredibly important to a person’s healing to learn what true kindness to oneself looks like, including how vital it is to have an awareness of your needs and to put the tending of those needs first
- Practicing gratitude for all you have, especially the small stuff, can completely change your perspective and your life
And there are and continue to be so many more. Looking for these positives, seeking them out and working for them if needed, and being so grateful to find them has brought an incredible amount of meaning to my diagnosis. I have grown and changed and developed in ways that I never would have before. Bringing my awareness to the pockets of light in the darkness, those things that I can be grateful for because of and in spite of cancer, has helped me navigate the fear and anxiety and stress that comes with a diagnosis way more successfully than I would have been able to otherwise. It has saved my mental and emotional health through all of this, of that I have absolutely no doubt. But it’s easier sometimes to dwell in the darkness, to give in to the monsters in our head and what they tell us. So, as difficult as it can be and as much as we may try to resist it in the moment, choose to focus on light and positivity and gratitude. It will make all the difference.
And the great thing is, the more you practice gratitude and gratefulness, the easier it gets. It starts spreading to every area of your life, not just “I am grateful I beat cancer and am here to see ______”, although that is a great one. For example, my partner was working nights this week, which never happens. It was an unexpected and most unwelcome surprise. I work during the day, so we had a little bit of time in the morning before I left for work and then about two hours in the evening after I got home and before he left. It sucked! But, quite unexpectedly and without really thinking about it, mid-week we were talking and started listing the positive things about the week. We were enjoying being able to spend time in the morning together and “sleeping in” (usually he would be getting up at 6am instead of getting home and to bed at that time), and he was able to drop me off and pick me up at work a few times, which was really nice. The experience brought our awareness to the time we did have together and helped us feel grateful for the moments we had each day in spite of his crazy schedule. Our conversation helped us to appreciate that at least we still got to see each other every day, and we were able to acknowledge how lucky we are that we normally get to see each other so much more. Gratitude has a ripple effect: the more you do it, the more you create, and it becomes effortless.
This practice of gratitude has led to an increase in my feelings of self-worth and satisfaction with my life. Many of the lessons I have learned, along with the importance of practicing gratitude, have pushed me to leave my comfort zone, to pursue my passions, and to live the life I was put on this planet to live. Gratitude has brought more meaning and positivity to my diagnosis than anything else, and that in and of itself is something I am indescribably grateful for. It has allowed me to heal mentally and emotionally in ways I didn’t realize I needed to, and this has contributed significantly to my physical wellbeing too.
In short, beginning a practice of gratitude was one of the biggest things that got me through the post-treatment fear. Feeling grateful for this life of mine and whoever decided to put me in it, has truly changed it. I have been able to reach a point where I value my experience with cancer. It shaped me into the person I feel I was put on this earth to be. It gave me the perspective that motivates me every day to go after my dreams and make a positive difference in the world. And feeling gratitude towards my cancer experience has helped to reduce some of the fear and anxiety over the future of my health. There is no way to know what the next bend in the path will bring, but I can know with certainty that whatever it is, I am meant for it, it is bound to teach me something new, and I will be grateful for whatever that learning is.
Happy Healing ❤️