Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
Attributed to Mother Theresa
I have disappointed myself.
Thirty years ago, I would have assumed that by now I would be doing great things, making a big difference in the lives of many beings.
I would have been well advanced in my field and a person of consequence.
But life is full of twists and turns and things don’t always go according to plan.
There are obstacles along the way, and maneuvering around them can force you onto a side path. Sometimes that path strays too far from your original purpose and you end up so far away that you cannot make it back.
You may find yourself in a place that’s unfamiliar and unexpected. For me, it was a realization that I will not get to where I thought I was going.
So I cannot make grand decisions to benefit all. But perhaps I can do little things with a kind heart that will benefit someone. I may not change the world, but in a small way with great love I can do my part.
One of the most intense emotions that I felt after being diagnosed with cancer was anger. I felt betrayed by my body and the medical community. I’d done everything that I had been told I was supposed to do to bring my breast cancer risk down to as close to zero as I could, and still cancer found me.
In reality, until we discover what causes cancer, we can never eliminate our risk of the disease. Of course, I wasn’t thinking like that. I had been completely blindsighted (as, I’ve learned, so many are) and was furious about it.
So when I read a suggestion about finding things to be grateful for, I scoffed at it. Until I actually thought about what I could potentially be grateful for.
The result was overwhelming. In the midst of what had gone wrong, there was so much that had gone right! So many things that could have been worse, so many lucky coincidences that improved my situation. So much to be grateful for! Where my way had been obstructed by brambles and thorns, now lay a welcoming path.
I sat slack-jawed, humbled by my many blessings, as if they had been planned out to benefit me. If I had to develop invasive breast cancer, then so many things were working together to make my journey easier.
I kept a gratitude list and continually added to it. Invariably when I sat down to write my mood would gently soften. Even so, I struggled. There was a perpetual tug of war between hot emotions and the soothing breeze of gratitude. Many times the heat would overtake me.
Time has passed and distance offers perspective, and while I am not perfect in making space for all the frustration associated with repercussions of my treatment, I understand the importance of working on it.
Every night, therefore, right before bed, I make a list of five things that I am grateful for. They don’t need to be big and they don’t even need to have taken place that day (although often they have). If they’ve evoked gratitude, they qualify.
I can always find at least five things and that is a heartening thought.
Settling into bed, thoughts of wonderful things fill my head and put a smile on my face, shepherding me to sleep. There is no better way to end the day.
“Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because he or she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that statement on the informational leaflets from various bottles prescribed for me. When it comes to a disease like cancer, it might as well say, “You think these side effects are bad? Hohoho, just try not taking your meds!”
This does not give warm, fuzzy feelings of hope. Then again, there’s not much about cancer that’s warm and fuzzy.
I, admittedly, am generally accepting of the advice given by knowledgeable professionals. When my oncologist laid out a treatment plan, I didn’t argue, although when offered a choice between an effective targeted therapy versus an even more effective but also more toxic one, I opted for lower toxicity.
For me, it was a quality of life issue. If I’m “cured” of cancer but end up with severe heart problems…well, I’d rather take my chances with a less damaging option.
Cancer still remains life-threatening, now as it did decades ago. The difference is that patients are living longer and some go completely into remission. Survivorship should be considered a factor when designing a treatment plan, as should long-lasting repercussions of side effects.
So if I had one request of oncological health teams, it would be that they look beyond simply bombarding the cancer and consider the physical and mental condition in which they leave the patient, being sensitive to the possibility of ‘overtreatment’ in their exuberance to squash as much of the disease as possible.
Should you use a sledgehammer when a rubber mallet might be sufficient? Is “just to be sure” a justification for side effects than can compromise your quality of life, however long that is?
There is no “right” answer to this as everyone’s situation and risk tolerances are different. So if I could have a second request of the medical community, family and friends of the patient, it would be that they respect the limits and decisions of the one who’s going through this.
To be able to weigh the risks and decide what’s acceptable and where to draw the line — that might offer at least a semblance of control in the crazy roller-coaster ride that is cancer.
My mind is usually abuzz with thoughts about what I have to do, what happened in the past and what the future may bring. Imaginary conversations take up space in my head, dragging me down down rabbit holes. All that unnecessary mental activity can get exhausting.
Meditation offers a reminder that I don’t have to do that.
I recently attended another mindfulness retreat. It had been a stressful week with many worries. As I took my seat, thoughts swirled in my head about everything that had been going on. It felt like I was juggling plates over my head, trying to keep everything in the air. I was tensing without even realizing.
And then it hit me like a bolt from the heavens: I could choose to let go of it all. There was nothing that I had to do and nowhere to be, except sit in stillness exactly where I was.
We practiced mindful movement. I have a habit of challenging myself by trying to make poses more difficult to make my muscles work harder, and I’ve found myself doing this even during retreats.
But this time, I let go of striving and took a simpler route. No need to set personal records, hold the pose longer or deeper; I wasn’t competing against anyone.
I didn’t need to do every movement perfectly, I needed to mellow out. It took more than a few breaths to bring myself down and feel the ground beneath me.
Not worrying about who was watching, what they thought about me or how I looked — what a concept. I gave myself permission to set all those pressures aside, and for the first time that week, everything calmed down.
Obviously, this is not something I do enough of. If I forget that I can simply let go during a formal mindfulness practice in a supportive community setting, then it’s not surprising that I tie myself up in knots during everyday life.
And everyday life is what really matters.
I’m still not good at this. But maybe each time I stop myself, I do so just a bit earlier. With time, I will get closer and closer to stopping before I even start. And that’s something I can look forward to.