Gratitude. I didn’t know if I would ever feel it again after my diagnosis, but I think that’s because I didn’t know what it was.
Not on any deep level. I knew of it in theory. I tried to feel it from things like the fact that I had a job in order to feel less reluctant about having to go to work. Though for me, it was hard to know it until all I held dear was threatened; until I realized what exactly I would miss if it all went away.
The first few weeks after my diagnosis were dark. Surgery, appointments, and research were taking up much of my time and head space. Action felt good. Action kept me focused on forward momentum, so action I was devoted to. Yet what happens when things start to slow down? Treatment finishes, appointments cease and a person has far too much time to think.
The time period post-treatment is not something that gets discussed very much; at least not the negative parts of it. Everyone, (myself included before I experienced it), thinks that it is a time of excitement; happiness at being finished with treatment and regular trips to the hospital, feeling grateful you got through it and celebrating with the loved ones who were there to support you through it. It is a time for all those things, but it is also a time of fear, anxiety and big, scary unknowns.
No one talks about this, and that’s something that needs to change.
While you are in active treatment, you are at the hospital regularly at least once every couple of weeks or even every day if you are undergoing radiation; and you are seeing your oncology team at least once every few weeks. That means there are doctors and nurses consistently checking up on you and testing you. You are receiving treatments that give you confidence and peace of mind. This goes on for months, or even a year or more depending on your treatment plan. Then one day, it all stops. Your oncologist tells you treatment is done, that things look good and they will see you in six months. I remember this conversation so clearly. It was terrifying. The check-ups stop. The reassuring nurses stop. The confidence-inspiring treatments stop and they send you on your way to “go back to normal.” It’s not normal; and it never will be again. So, now what?
You adjust to your new-normal. It can be hard.
Now that you are finished with the physically hardest part of cancer, the part that gets the most attention and that most people have a vague understanding of, is that everyone around you expects you will return to work, return to your social commitments and that you will simply move on with your life. Yet for many of us, though outwardly it appears we are doing just that, there are deep, internal changes that prevent us from simply carrying on like before. How do we adjust to these changes? How do we deal with the fear, anxiety and PTSD that, for so many of us, becomes part of this “new normal life?”
For me, the first step toward working with and through these emotions and changes was starting to practice gratitude. I say “practice,” because it takes just that; practice. You have to start consciously recognizing those things you are grateful for; big or small. You have to make the intentional choice to stop each and every day and take momenst to feel gratitude for your life and the amazing things in it.
These don’t need to be big things either; trust me, I know how hard it can be to find anything at all to be grateful for during a cancer diagnosis. For me, before I started knowingly practicing gratitude, I first noticed a perspective shift in myself. I realized that I was a lot happier to see the grass looking green and lush, to see the sky looking beautiful and bright. I noticed that these realizations made me feel content and joyful and so I started seeking out gratitude in a much more intentional way.
One of the first things I started doing was keeping a gratitude journal.
Every night, I write down at least five things from the day that I am grateful for; trying as hard as possible not to repeat any that I have written down before. This can be difficult sometimes and I do repeat a few occasionally, but the majority of the time I am able to find five new things every day that I am grateful for. I had been doing this for a couple of months, and I remember the moment when I flipped back through my journal and it dawned on me the volume of things that I had in my life to be grateful for. It can be so easy to forget and dwell on what we lack or what we wish we didn’t have to deal with; but I had the evidence right there in front of me, the beauty of my life recorded indelibly. It was pretty incredible and extremely joyful. To see page after page of wonderful moments from my recent past is lovely and I highly recommend it.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this article, where I will share more about practicing gratitude and gratefulness.