Gratitude: It’s Not Just for Big Things

A number of years ago, when my kids were still very small, we lived in an area with brutal winters. That meant sub-freezing temperatures for weeks at a time. Money was tight so we had to keep the thermostat in the 50s overnight and in the low 60s during the day. To make matters worse, our bedroom was in a part of the house that the radiator pipes wouldn’t warm properly, so it was always cold there at that time of the year.

Gratitude for a cup of tea and a quiet moment to write – that is enough.

And by “cold” I mean, the bedsheets would be literally frigid when it was time for bed. So much so, that my joints would ache and I’d be miserable until my body heat could warm them up.

This continued for a year or two until I found an electric mattress pad. The first night that I crawled under the sheets with the heat turned on, I thought I’d won the lottery.

There were so many negative parts to the years we lived there, but going to bed with warmed sheets overwhelmed me with gratitude for the simple pleasure of removing the pain of the cold.

The reason that I’m telling you this is that it’s so obvious to be grateful for the stark changes in our situation. It’s a no-brainer.

But there is no need to wait for something like that. There are simple things that we take for granted that it would be so easy to be grateful for.

Turn your attention to little pleasures and acknowledge their importance in your life. Take some time to sit and bring them to your awareness. Feel into how they lighten your existence. Maybe thinking about them makes you smile. Or maybe the fact that something is simply working properly can be enough to help us realize how fortunate we are to have it at all.

Whatever it is, open up and invite gratitude in.

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Maybe generating gratitude during bad times is exactly what we need.

Those of us who have recently gotten a cancer diagnosis may feel a touch bitter about this concept. Understandably, it may be easier to be grateful when you’re not dealing with a serious disease. And no one would blame you for having a hard time generating a mood of gratitude.

But perhaps that’s exactly when you should look for things that elicit a sense of gratefulness, no matter how small. It may be one of the most important things you can do to maintain a sense of well-being in a difficult time.

Before You Meet Your Oncologist, Be Aware…

…they don’t pull punches.

This is critical to be aware of when you’ve gotten your cancer diagnosis and are meeting your oncologist for the first time. We all go into that exam room fearful but hoping for good news. We want reassurance that it’s going to be okay.

The problem is, your oncologist can’t tell you that. They can’t say that you’ll get through this fine. Because they’re not going to promise you something they cannot guarantee. What they can give you is statistics. However, that may come in the form of something like, “You have an 85% chance of surviving…”, which sounds great, right, “…for 5 years.”

Is it good news or bad news? Their faces won’t tell.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about this, but honestly, when I heard that I thought, um, is that the best you can give me?

While I adore my oncologist, there was no cute wrinkled nose, no “I’m sure you’re gonna be okay” warm-and-fuzzies. It was all, “this is what’s next.”

I’m convinced that oncologists start their day by practicing how to deliver information without emotion, without giving away whether the news is good or bad. As patients, we literally hang on every word, every hesitation, every wrinkle on our oncologist’s face for an indication of just HOW bad the situation is. Some will reveal more than others, but in my own experience, it was “just the facts, ma’am” for quite a long time.

This could be very frustrating. I learned that I needed to get the “rah-rah” encouragement elsewhere.

On the plus side, however, I knew that if something was bad, my oncologist was going to tell me. He wouldn’t be like that friend who assures you your ugly outfit looks good just so that they don’t hurt your feelings. So if it’s any consolation, you’ll leave the office knowing what’s up, and what the doc doesn’t know yet if they’re still waiting for results. No false promises.

That helps get your head past the diagnosis and moving forward into treatment.

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I remember when, after my final infusion, I developed a horrible nail infection that landed me in the Emergency Room. I was stabilized, pumped full of antibiotics and my wound cleaned out. As I recovered, my ER doc came back to see how I was doing because he knew I’d just finished chemo and was familiar with the cancer experience. He told me that he was about to go notify another ER patient that they had liver cancer and wanted to take a breather and come talk to me before he had to break the news to them. It was obvious that he was moved by his patient’s plight.

So this was a great reminder for me that even though the doctors may seem to be stone-faced, they are by no means stone-hearted.

Not A Cancer Superhero? You Are Still Enough

After reading about the tragic passing of actor Chadwick Boseman at age 43 from colon cancer, in addition to his nothing-short-of-heroic efforts to persevere with his career and charitable acts while facing cancer treatment and a worsening prognosis, I was moved with emotion. First, for the loss of an immensely talented actor who would have had a long and bright future. Second, because knowing how society looks at cancer sufferers, he would not have gotten the roles he did had he been open about his diagnosis. 

And, third, for the rest of us run-of-the-mill cancer patients. When I was going through treatment, I wasn’t a hero. I was scared. I didn’t keep my illness a secret so that I wouldn’t be viewed as “uncastable” like Mr. Boseman might have been, or so I would be unhindered in my drive to achieve great things, as other notable cancer patients have. At least the ones who are written about in the media.

Me? I was barely holding on.

Everyone knew about my diagnosis, especially those who saw me on a daily basis. I didn’t want people to speculate about my condition once I started losing my hair and missing work, so I made sure to get the word out. But the real battle I fought was much more personal and invisible. My nemesis was anxiety, and I entered that fight ill-equipped to win it.

It may not feel like it when you’re hearing about the accomplishments of others, but just showing up is an achievement when it comes to cancer.

So while I was dragging myself around to doctors’ appointments and cancer treatments, I was churning inside. There were days I wanted to numb out and curl up in a corner. But I went to the office. I smiled at coworkers even when I was nauseated by anxiety. That’s it. No great feats, nothing that others could remark favorably on or report in the news. I didn’t feel strong or brave and certainly not like a hero. I simply existed. 

It would have been so cool was to have bravely fought cancer while still racking up amazing accomplishments. To be the one about whom people would say, “And she did ALL THAT while undergoing treatment!” No, not me. Not everyone is in a position to be that superhero.

So the point I want to make is that you will hear of the cancer patients who are truly inspirational, and I, along with everyone else, am awed by their strength of character and ability to continue in the face of a life-threatening illness. But there are also many of us that limp along day by day, trying to keep our lives together after they’ve been torn asunder by a cancer diagnosis. We’re not going to get accolades for making it back to work after five days of nausea. But we persevere in our own inconspicuous ways. Perhaps you’re one of those.

And that’s enough. 

Hey Doctors! Before You Give a Cancer Diagnosis…

From time to time, I think back on my cancer experience (who am I kidding, I think about it every single day!) and wonder how things might have gone differently. Generally, I write for the cancer patient, but this post is directed at the doctor who delivers the diagnosis.

So…dear doctors:

Think very carefully about what else you want to tell a new cancer patient right after you tell them that they have cancer. It better not be important, because they’re not going to hear it. Once you deliver the diagnosis, a cancer patient’s executive level cognitive processes freeze, making comprehension difficult. Any further speech sounds like the “wah-wah-wah” talk of the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.

For example, I was told two things by my radiologist, when he came into the room after he looked at my diagnostic ultrasound: (1) you have cancer, and (2) you’re going to be alright. Guess which one of those points I didn’t remember. I’m sure my doctor was trying to be cheery and supportive, but I can guarantee you it didn’t work.

Let’s face it, no matter how gently a doctor tries to break it to you, being told that you have cancer is devastating. It’s perfectly normal to be blown back by the news because your life is going to change drastically for at least a while, and maybe permanently. But, geez, doc, you should be prepared to repeat the same info at least several times and cut out the unnecessary bits. Your newly-designated cancer patient is going to have to need time to process the news!

Tip to the patient: bring someone with you to your subsequent visits who’s good at taking notes and is on an even keel. I brought my husband but he barely wrote anything down. Turns out, he was just as shocked as I was and wasn’t taking the news any better.

Hey, doc, I get that this is hard on you too. So please don’t think I don’t appreciate what you do (especially these days!). But please consider some of these things before you deliver your next cancer diagnosis. Thanks. 🙂

Following up on that, doc, the next thing that I would suggest is that you not give overly specific responses to questions based on assumptions you’re making. I asked about the recovery time from surgery, since I was terrified by the thought of going under the knife. Mine was early stage breast cancer, and ultimately I had a lumpectomy, but that same radiologist had warned me that recovery would take 4-6 weeks. Up to a month and a half?!? I whimpered something along the lines of, “But I have to work,” at which point he reminded me that my health was more important than my job.

I don’t know where he pulled out such a long recovery time, but being given that sort of time frame compounded my anxiety. Maybe he also said that some people have a shorter recovery time, but of course, I wasn’t processing info well and all I could remember was “4-6 weeks”.

So I would recommend to doctors, (1) if you really don’t know specifics, don’t offer estimates–I was back to work the week after my surgery, btw–and (2) please don’t blow off a patient’s concern about the importance of other aspects of their lives, like going to work. Yes, ultimately, as the saying goes, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” But for many of us, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have health insurance! Everything in our lives is interconnected. It’s all important. Please keep that in mind.

Hey, nobody likes to deliver bad news and I know you’re trying your best. But the only thing worse than telling someone they have cancer is being the one it’s being told to. So please, be gentle. You will go home that evening possibly bummed that another one of your patients has cancer.

The patient is going home that evening embarking on one of the most frightening journeys of their life.