You’ll never hear me say that “cancer was a gift.” I have great respect for people who feel this way, and have found their lives improved as a result. But for me, it doesn’t ring true .
As I see it, cancer itself is decidedly not a gift. I do think there are gifts to be found in the experience of having cancer.
Recognizing and claiming those gifts has helped me heal and allows me to live well with a changed reality.
Four of the gifts I’ve found
1. A deeper awareness of the love that exists all around me.
The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard but must be felt with the heart.
– Helen Keller
That love surrounded and lifted me up. It came from expected and unexpected quarters. Family and friends. Colleagues and acquaintances. Health care professionals. Members of an online survivors’ writing group. Our USPS mail carrier. Strangers.
Cancer opened the door to offering and receiving heartfelt expressions of love and human kindness. Whats others did for me and said to me expressed a depth of connectedness and caring that often goes unvoiced.
2. A new understanding of what matters most.
I live to enjoy life by the littlest things, feeling the grass between my toes, breathing fresh air, watching the wind sway the trees, enjoying the company of loved ones, a deep conversation, getting lost in a good book, going for a walk in nature, watching my kids grow up. Just the feeling itself of being alive, the absolute amazing fact that we are here right now, breathing, thinking, doing.”
Having cancer, thankfully now classed as “no evidence of disease,” shifted my perspective on the importance of living fully and in the moment.
I heard and understood those words much more abstractly BC (Before Cancer). Coming face to face with and accepting my own mortality removed a protective haze of denial about the simple reality of death. My own death, I mean. With luck, that’s still a long way off!
Now that protective haze is gone. This is sometimes unsettling. But it also helps me to remember what matters most.
- I remember to be present for the everydayness of life, with its ups and downs,.
- I remember to be fully open to seeing and appreciating the extraordinary.
- I remember not put off the things l keep meaning to do. I make the time, I make the effort. It’s worth it.
3. A better way to handle anxiety.
Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I can get to feeling anxious pretty quickly. That hasn’t entirely changed, but now I understand that I can treat my anxious feelings and thoughts differently.
Mostly, they come from worrying about things that might happen in the future. To the extent that anxious feelings help me take steps to reduce realistic risks, they can actually be pretty helpful.
It’s possible I could involved in a car accident, so I wear my seatbelt. I might flub a presentation, so I practice it in order to be well-prepared. I put aside some money in case of need emergency funds. A little anxiety is useful in prompting me to do these things.
But so often anxiety isn’t useful at all. It’s can be unproductive and pretty unpleasant! And it stops me from fully appreciating what is happening right now.
Now, when I find myself worrying about some future event, I ask myself a few questions, like
- How likely is this outcome?
- Are more positive outcomes possible?
- Is there anything reasonable I can do to reduce the likelihood of an unwanted outcome?
If the answers to these questions, in order, are “not very,” “yes,” and “no,” it’s more productive to bring my thoughts back to the present. Mindful writing and mindful meditation help with this, as does physical activity ranging from knitting to yoga to vigorous outdoor exercise.
Acceptance of what is helps in letting go of anxiety. This is an active kind of acceptance, in which I continue my self-care, my growth and learning, my work, pursue my interests, and maintain my commitments to others, and my activism. Taking actions in each of these areas strengthens hope and counteracts anxiety.
4. Laughter may not cure you, but it’s powerful.
There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
My sense of humor has always been a key part of who I am and how I connect with others. During the 10 months of active treatment, I made up my mind to laugh at least once each day, because laughter feels so good!
I asked friends to send me funny pictures, cartoons and videos, and to suggest movies or TV shows that would make me laugh. They did it, and I loved getting what they texted and emailed. Laughing every day reminded me that I am more than this beleaguered body.
Is laughter the best medicine? I don’t know, but it is up there at the top of the list!
First published October 11, 2018. Revised July 17, 2019.