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“This Is What It Means to Be Alive:” Feeling Thankful after Cancer

Posted Nov 23 2011 11:43am
Posted in: Stupid Cancer
Thanksgiving is an easy holiday for cancer survivors: we have gratitude coming out of our ears. We don’t need Pilgrim...

Thanksgiving is an easy holiday for cancer survivors: we have gratitude coming out of our ears. We don’t need Pilgrim hats and Wampanoag feathers to remind us how fortunate we are. Our encounter with cancer made it clear we are lucky to be alive. We feel grateful every day.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have our share of bitter resentment as well. Young survivors are painfully aware of how much we have lost to cancerbreasts, testicles, colons, fertility, friends, the youthful confidence that everything will work out alright. These are hard pills to swallow, especially when you are in your twenties or thirties and your disease-free friends don’t understand.

Yet alongside the grief and loss, we can’t help but feel thankful.

In the immediate aftermath of treatment, we appreciate even the most ordinary moments. Denny was 28 when he got diagnosed with nasal cancer. His 35 doses of radiation, brutal rounds of chemo, and extensive mouth sores made it impossible for him to eat, so his doctors attached a g-tube to his abdomen. He said:

When I took my first shower after I got the appendages taken out, I cried for 20 minutes. I am a shower guy. When I was ill for nine months, it was squatting in the tub. When I take a shower, I feel liberated. I am reminded it is a luxury. Washing my hair is one of the most joyous things I do, because it is a luxury to have hair.

After you have been bald and vomiting and fearing death for months, you become remarkably easy to please. But there is wisdom in savoring simple pleasures.

Over coffee one day, a fellow breast cancer survivor told me, “I was walking up the stairs from the subway the other day, and this breeze started blowing, and it blew my shirt against my skin in this way that made me stop and think, ‘This is what it means to be alive.’”

I’ve often had those realizations since my diagnosis. Sometimes when I am floating on my back in the ocean or resting against a redrock canyon wall, I am struck by how lucky I am to be living through such moments. I have seen the alternative. I know I could just as easily be in a chemo chair, fighting off an infection in a hospital bed, or facing death. But instead I get to feel the sun on my face and hear my family’s laughter.

The list of things to be thankful for is long. I am grateful that my cancer did not recur, that my husband was an incredible support during our ordeal, that I was able to have my daughter even after chemo. I have many gifts in my life, and I appreciate each one of them. But there is something about the simple moments and the small luxuries that bring the gratitude home.

At dinner tables across the nation this week, people will raise their glasses and say they are thankful for their health. I am sure they will mean it, but we cancer survivors know its true value. And we know that sitting through another Thanksgiving meal is reward in itself.

Cancer survivors know life can be stolen away at any moment. We have earned our gratitude. We may as well enjoy it.

One survivor of testicular cancer explained, “Since my diagnosis, I am able to put things in perspective. If I have a bad day at work, my kid is screaming, my house is a disaster. Well you know, fuck it! I am alive! I appreciate the time I have.”

Emily Cousins is a writer and editor who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 32 and nine-months pregnant with her first child. She is currently writing a book about what it's like for young survivors once cancer treatment is over-when the radiation burns have healed and the hair has started to come back, but everything else is completely out of whack. After almost a decade living in New York City, Cousins now resides in Northern Arizona with her husband, son, and the daughter she was lucky to have post chemo.
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