The art of gratitude is something we’re never done with; there’s always room for deepening our appreciation. There are marked times in your life that most certainly demand your full attention – to what is going well in your life, to what is good, helpful, and sustaining. We all want to live in daily reverence for life’s simple blessings, but we’re also human, and days can blur into weeks, into years, before a major hurdle comes our way, beckoning us to find the silver linings as we stand under the inevitable passing of life’s occasional rain clouds.
There are some events that, despite our aversion to their occurrence, end up teaching us more than we could ever have anticipated; that shift our thinking in directions only possible under such duress. One example of such adversity is cancer.
I’m in the early stages of a 16-week chemotherapy regimen for Stage 2 breast cancer. It’s been two months since my mastectomy, and I’m two infusions in. No visitors are allowed right now, so I’m bringing books to keep busy during the appointments. I am coping fairly well with the side-effects so far, save for a few bouts of nausea the first round, and some fatigue. I get pretty tired sometimes and need to rest or take a nap.
Then, there are the shots in the stomach for seven days, which I’ve gotten the hang of; technique matters, of course! Squeezing the skin, injecting quickly at a 45° angle, followed by a slower injection seems to work well so far. There’s also a slight numbness and tingling in my left armpit and upper arm that feels like it’s half-asleep. My port is on my right side and not giving me any problems, except that I have a roughly one-inch scar from it, and it hurts if my port is hit directly. I was changing the pillowcases the other day, and when I pulled off the case, I hit my port with the back of my hand; it hurt so bad I winced and grimaced, and it throbbed for hours afterward. It’s not something I want to hit any harder!
There are so many layers in the effects of cancer – some easily seen, others invisible if not pointed out. There’s so much mental energy; my day is occupied at least at some point by researching something online, or reading something to learn more about it. As a Science teacher, I am fascinated by the molecular processes occurring within my body, and want to learn about that as best as I can understand. I’m only at the beginning stages of my chemotherapy, so I’ll see how the rest of treatment goes.
Worse than my cancer story, the world is suffering amid the Covid-19 pandemic (in case you’ve been living under a rock). It’s heartbreaking how many people are dying. It’s tragic, and gives me perspective – even though I’m going through cancer, other people are dying from this virus; the gravity of the situation is far worse than my individual situation. I feel so sad for all those affected, and it reminds me to count my blessings.
Cancer threatens to take away all that I love and hold dear, and it makes me exceptionally appreciative for all that I have. While allowing myself to feel down or sad about having cancer is normal and healthy, the fighter in me is fiercely roaring, forcing my attention toward all that is on the up-and-up in the world, all that is positive. It’s got me thinking about all of the blessings I am so lucky to have in my life. I love my little life. Everything from my nightly Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune habit to the bike rides in the mountains I love so dearly; from the amazing people in my life, to the career I love. I feel like I have a new lease on life.
My gratitude is being recalibrated, sharpened in a new way – for my husband Ron, my cat Beau; my sweet family; my small but close circle of friends and acquaintances; my house in the beautiful mountains, living in a place I love.
Yes! These are all good things, and cancer doesn’t take them away. Even if cancer kills me, it doesn’t negate the good years I’ve lived and the memories I’ve made.
Ron asked me recently how I was really doing, fighting breast cancer amid the coronavirus pandemic. Without so much of a thought, I replied, “Honestly, okay. I have my you and Beau by my side, a beautiful home in the mountains, and food to eat. As a plus, we haven’t run out of toilet paper yet”. Simple truth in these times of shelter-in-place.
It’s true, though; I feel pretty amazing. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for how happy I am, for how active I am able to be; for not suffering worse, for not having a harder time. It’s silly and futile of me to do so, and I remind myself quickly that it’s in my nature to make the best of the situation. We all have the ability within ourselves to adapt and make the most of a challenge, and right now, that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t really feel guilty, of course, but I realize how much harder of a time I would be having if I were in this all alone.
People fight cancer without the help of loved ones everyday. I have the good grace of my husband living within the home. I am so blessed to have Ron helping me through this. He is my torch, my light, my breath of fresh air. His generosity, love, and acts of compassion have moved me. He has always been a gem of a human being, but now he is even more so my hero.
I’m finding so much grace lately, in places where I was once angry or discouraged, followed by a tunnel-vision focus on the foundation of such grace: gratitude.
Gratitude – a word that’s become trite, cliched, hackneyed to the nines, for good reason. Poetry, songs, self-help books, Instagram posts, and self-possessed gurus have gratitude permeating through their cores. It is one of the basic tenets for happiness, regardless, if not in spite of, possession or circumstance.
It’s something I thought I had a pretty strong handle on before being diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve always felt like I’m making up for lost time, trying to squeeze as much into the day before the book is closed on me.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I cried, of course, coming to terms with my total lack of control over the situation; I certainly did not feel gratitude. When I imagined my funeral – my ashes being scattered among loved ones in my favorite natural environs – like Kirkwood, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean – I rued the thought of dying young, that is, before age eighty, because eighty is about the age I consider old. Moreover, lifespans are growing longer by the decade. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll all get there, though. I was quite angry about the prospect of cutting my life short, of losing the time I was owed to get older.
Owed? That’s where I was wrong. I’m not owed anything in life – not time, not love, not opportunity. Life is but a combination of attitude and circumstance, with gratitude at its fulcrum. Only we can find that balance, and we owe it to ourselves to achieve it, lest we live our lives stuck in a cat-and-mouse game between happiness and strife.
Though I’d thought I’d been living for years with a passionate appreciation for life and my blessings, I’m surprised by my calibration of gratitude. It’s growing daily. In the morning, the robins singing in the forest spark my curiosity for the day ahead. Though I’m not usually a morning-person, I find myself being pulled out of bed earlier than normal to stand witness to the glory unfolding outside my bedroom window, air thick with the dew of moisture blown in off the Pacific Ocean several miles away. Everyday I want to do as much as I can. I dance in my living room, play guitar to my favorite songs, and get moving outside.
Though I’m a pretty positive person by nature, I’m also a realist, and I don’t shy away from challenges, including tough feelings. I love learning all I can about everything, and using that knowledge to quell any such fears or misgivings. I’m not afraid to go there emotionally; to let myself experience the full gamut of feelings, from sadness to euphoria. I love giving myself to an experience fully and whole-heartedly. There is nothing inside my mind that scares me. I’ve felt so many different emotions during this experience, many of them uncomfortable and overwhelming, but I sat with them, and they passed along. That’s what emotions do; they don’t stay forever. We have the power to move them along at will, but there’s value in looking them in the eye, in sitting face-to-face with your fears and troubles. Better yet, it makes you feel relieved once you realize the bottom isn’t going to drop out on you just because you let yourself feel sad, or angry, or terrified. The human will to move forward ultimately prevails, and we focus again on positive, more helpful emotions, like gratitude.
A cancer diagnosis prompts you to look inward, and walk the winding paths of hypotheticals in your mind with aplomb and detachment; to consider each thought or what if for what it is, and then let it go. There is one feeling, though, that I find myself myopically focused on these days: gratitude. Its shade of grey may change from day to day, but it’s only grown stronger in the last couple of months.
I find blessings where I may have once dismissed them, too caught up in discomfort and unfamiliarity to notice their quiet heroism. I’m not one of those I’m so blessed! people who will bury their heads in the sand ignoring the hurricane above, but I am giving myself that mercy lately to feel that way, and to own it. Yes, I am blessed! It’s okay to acknowledge it, to state it out loud, to write it down, to shout it from the mountaintops, almighty.
It’s not just having a roof over my head and food to eat; it is having a roof over my head and food to eat. Those very basics are true blessings. Amid the struggling time we’re all living in right now, I feel exceptionally happy for these fundamentals.
Climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I am thankful for a community of loving people, from near and far, who’ve rallied to support me during this time. There is nothing like the warmth of loved ones coming together to make your life easier. I have such admiration and respect for those who go it alone through the battle of cancer.
I am blessed I got my surgery when I did, on February 26, 2020, right before elective surgeries started being canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions in hospitals. I am blessed I had enough sick-leave accrued over my years of teaching to take a paid leave-of-absence, a testament to good planning and discipline on my part, and the stability of a government job. I am blessed with my job itself; I am blessed with the students I teach, the staff I work with, the community I live in.
Now I’m starting to sound like one of those I’m so blessed! people I bemoaned earlier, but cliche as it sounds, that’s how I’m starting to feel. That’s how a lot of people who are diagnosed with cancer say they end up feeling, too. When everything is at risk, you’re forced to reevaluate.
Perspective will give you a lot in life, or take a lot from you. It all depends upon how you see things. Knowing the world is suffering from coronavirus helps put my cancer in perspective; someone is fighting a harder battle, a worse prognosis, a more dire health issue. There is always someone or something that will be the comparative or superlative; whether better or best, healthier or healthiest, worse or worst, we all live on a spectrum of relativity. It’s up to us to calibrate ourselves on that scale; to find the data points we most align with, to dismiss outliers for what they are; to not demean our experiences through comparison, but make sense of them. We are never done with this work; there’s always room to grow. At the bottom of it all is a pure desire for human connection, and the digital age we live in fosters this community.
There’s plenty of awesomeness to go around in the world. We ought to encourage each other to be our best, to express our idiosyncratic beauty as fully as we can. We don’t know how much time we have to do so. I know now for sure that I don’t want to get to my deathbed and wish I’d lived more fully, that I’d expressed myself more. I don’t want to leave anything unsaid, any passion not explored.
Which leads me to the biggest blessing cancer has given me so far: the freedom to let go of having biological children. Chemotherapy drugs will all but destroy whatever potential I have. That choice has been finalized for me, and it feels like a big relief, actually. I have a strong maternal instinct, and there’s been times in my life that I wanted to have kids; however, I never really wanted it when it came down to brass tacks. And I made myself so wrong for that.
Like most childless women approaching forty, I’ve been peppered with questions and comments about whether or not I should have children; I’ve learned to not be too bothered by those. What’s tougher is my own insecurity – that I somehow believe so steadfastly in the construct that a woman’s purpose and ultimate value comes from her motherhood – and in the absence of fulfilling that action, I feel like I’m not good enough.
Though I’m confident with my life, I realize the areas where I don’t feel so. The fact that I’m not a mother, that I’ve never experienced childbirth, or watching my own child take its first steps, makes me feel inadequate on a certain level. It’s not something I dwell on daily, but I feel its pangs when I’m in the company of happy mothers, whose joy I’ll never know. There are other ways to experience motherhood, and I have a fierce maternal instinct, but having a biological child is something I won’t experience; it’s a club I’ll likely never be a part of. And I chose that, years ago, by my mid-twenties I knew.
I shelved that conviction for the odds of an accident, or a sudden change of heart, knowing as each year passed on, the chance declined like a biplane stalling in an airshow. I thought I should want children of our own; I thought I’d get the urge, baby fever. I’ve lived Summer to Summer for years, as a teacher, and a student, and with every one, I’d think, Maybe next Summer. I loved spending time with my nieces and nephews; we played, had fun, and explored. I loved teaching my seventh-grade students, with all of their energy and curiosity.
I’ve always loved kids. Babies? I love them, too, but I wasn’t always inclined to them. I admit I’ve probably changed less than ten diapers in my entire life. I used to babysit when I was a kid, but babies weren’t my forte. The first time I ever held a baby was in the climbing gym in Santa Cruz when I was twenty-one years old – yes, that old! A friend of mine had just had a baby, and a mutual friend of ours couldn’t believe I’d never held a baby before; he immediately made me hold that cutie-pie. I took right to holding him, but they laughed at how awkward I was. I’ve spent a lot more time with babies and children since then, but the need to have my own didn’t compel me to act upon it.
I love kids and babies because they’re people, after all, and I love people. For someone who loves people, I sure can be a bit of a loner. I can entertain myself endlessly, and I need time alone everyday to be happy. It’s not about excluding or avoiding others; rather, it’s about doing the things I love. Living under a shelter-in-place order has been pretty easy for me, though I miss my loved ones. We all live on a spectrum of introversion and extroversion. Sometimes that includes spending time with others, but much of the time, I’m riding solo – literally, on my bike. I’ve fought with the judgment of being selfish or self-centered for years; that someone who spends so much time doing what they want to do must be all about themselves.
I’ve struggled with feeling like people must think I’m so selfish, or self-absorbed, though I’d like to think I don’t care about their opinion. I try to justify myself to others, explaining that it’s not about spending time alone with myself, so much as it is spending time immersed in the activity I’m doing, and totally getting outside of myself; it’s really the opposite of being selfish or self-centered. I am completely present, rapt in the moment at hand, only focused on living that hobby, or sport, or meditative moment of solitude.
For someone who doesn’t have kids, and spends so much time alone, I feel like I have to defend myself; that people are judging me for being selfish. This is the concern that breast cancer is helping to kick. It really doesn’t matter if someone approves of my life choices or not; it only matters that I get to live another day to make my life’s choices. It doesn’t matter if I reproduce or not; it matters that I live a healthy life. You can’t live every life option in your life; you really can’t do it all, though we all like to try. I know I can’t have the life of the outdoorsy adventure girl and the stay-at-home mother married to her high-school sweetheart. I’ve spent so much time over the years feeling unsettled about the prospect of having kids, so much care about whether other people thought I was good enough, successful enough, woman enough to be a mother. It’s not something I was aware of all the time, but now that I’m at the end of the road for having kids, I feel the compounded effect of inadequacy. On the flipside, I feel an overwhelming sense of affirmation for my life, and the choices I’ve made.
Which is why I say:
Thank You, Breast Cancer. Thank you for affirming my life’s choice to not have kids. Thank you for affirming that I can spend my free time how I choose, enjoy time with my husband and cat, and start everyday with a blank slate I get to fill. Thank you, Breast Cancer, for affirming that I’m on the right path, that I will continue on for as long as Life will let me; that I can appreciate my simple days, living out my passions. Thank you for affirming I am happy with my life, and that I want more time to live it.
For all I am really trying for is more time to spend with my loved ones, more time to do the things I love. Chemo is part of this fight for more time, and I’m grateful these drugs exist to help people like me. It’s a good time to have breast cancer if there ever were one, though there remains so much room for advancement.
Nothing is perfect in life, and the same goes for my cancer. Although I can fall into the coulda-should-woulda trap, going over my life with a fine-toothed comb, trying desperately to glean some sort of explanation for why I would get breast cancer as a healthy thirty-nine year old, all that matters now is the present, so I try to keep my energy centered there.
I always felt like I was a person who lived with gratitude, with reverence for the beautiful landscapes we are so privileged to experience on this Earth – whether in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, or Fort William in Scotland, or Whistler, Canada (the latter two are on my bucket list).
When I first got diagnosed, my patience had to adapt. Now, I feel my gratitude has adapted. I have grown protective of my life, even; it is so important to me that I will do everything I can to prolong it. I must be my own Mama-Bear, and give it all I’ve got. The next few months will challenge me further, but if I can keep my gratitude calibrated, I’ll keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel – no, not that light, but the light of the mercy of healing, the light of a new day … or maybe just the light of an awesome ride!