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Complexities of Gratitude

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US, there are probably lots of articles and stories about gratitude coming your way. Gratitude is pretty much the word of the month every November, right? People love to talk about what they’re grateful for and how they practice gratitude. And of course, we often hear people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer say they are more grateful in general following their cancer diagnosis. Cancer was a wake-up call. They are more grateful now for everything.

As you might guess, I don’t really go along with the notion that we must feel more grateful after cancer knocks on our door. I have a tendency to resist many of the societal expectations on how “to do” cancer, including this one. Sometimes I wonder why this is. But I guess that’s a post for another day.

Without a doubt, I am grateful for many people and many things, but I was grateful before cancer too. I didn’t need cancer as a wake-up call. I didn’t need cancer to make me appreciate my life, my family and my friends. I appreciated them before and I appreciate them now. I like to think that even if cancer had not reared its ugly head, I would still be living a life filled with gratitude. I also like to think I am living a life filled with gratitude.

But being grateful today after my cancer diagnosis, does not mean I must keep quiet.

One thing that continues to bother me about life in Cancer Survivorship Land is that sometimes those of us who do not conform to the expected ways to do cancer/survivorship, are thought to be ungrateful.

This is so unfair and so untrue.

As I may have mentioned before, I even had a doctor say to me once when we were discussing my hideous side effects from arimidex, “Well, remember you’re alive.”

That statement seemed to imply I should stay focused on being grateful and maybe just quiet down a bit about my collateral damage issues. I never forgot that comment and how it made me feel.

Mostly it made me feel unheard. Not validated. Not understood. Not cared about.

I can be candid. I can be opinionated. I can be non-conforming. I can be ‘loud’ about whatever I want to be loud about. I can even be angry. And I most certainly can talk about and, yes, grieve for people and things cancer has stolen from me.

I can be all these things and at the same time I can also be grateful. Very grateful.

And so can you.

Because life is complex. Cancer is complex. Survivorship is complex. People are complex. Feelings are complex.

Maybe gratitude is too.

Do you ever feel as if you are perceived to be ungrateful for whatever reason?

If applicable, do you feel you are more grateful after your cancer diagnosis?

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22 thoughts on “Complexities of Gratitude

  1. Thank you for this post. Life IS very complex, and in different ways for each of us. One of the most challenging things as a mom has been to experience ‘elation’ with one child– at the very same time as I share in the other child’s ‘despair.’ It is possible to do, however. And that’s how I see gratitude. I feel intense and constant gratitude for where I am today in spite of this re-routing of my life, for those going through this with me and supporting me, for my children and husband, and for more than there is room to list here. But there are also intense emotions of sadness, worry, and yes even anger that bubble to the surface–just like they did at times before my dx–and if I don’t acknowledge these, they will get worse. I choose to acknowledge them as real and acceptable, and at the same time I have to limit the time I spend with them because that works best for me. I don’t want these feelings to ‘win.’ So, most days I consciously choose gratefulness and joy–just like I did before ca. And that’s exactly what I think you are saying–our attitudes and ups and downs are not so different from before. Ca is now one of the reasons for those ‘down’ emotions bubbling up, but it is not the reason for my gratitude. I chose gratitude before ca, and now I am choosing not to allow ca to steal it away from me. Thank you for your honesty and transparency. You are a blessing.

    1. Elizabeth, Like you, I think it is so important to acknowledge all feelings as real and acceptable. Doing so is helpful in the long haul. Cancer is not the reason for my gratitude either. I choose gratitude, too, (most of the time) but I also choose being real about my other feelings. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts on gratitude.

  2. Nancy, this is another great topic for discussion. You and I share the exact same ideas when it comes to gratitude.

    I don’t like anything that suggests “learning something” from cancer or that gives cancer any credit. And although people haven’t told me to my face that I am ungrateful, some of their comments suggest that I am (or that I am not “positive enough”). Every time they dismiss/minimize my feelings about cancer (or its treatments), it makes me feel like I am being ungrateful. But I am not ungrateful. Now people probably expect me to “think twice” before I complain about anything because cancer was meant to teach me “something,” maybe to have more patience or to tolerate more from people and from life in general. I feel in some ways it has done the opposite.

    I am sorry your doctor minimized your feelings.

    I think I just prefer silence these days. Seems like a lot of things people say to me annoy me. Yes, we are all complicated but I choose to stay true to myself. I am glad you are doing the same, Nancy.

    1. Rebecca, I just don’t understand why being genuine is so often interpreted as being ungrateful or negative. Besides, we can feel so many different feelings all at the same time. We are complex beings in so many ways. I’m sorry you’ve heard comments suggesting you are ungrateful. Like I said in the post, that is so unfair and also so untrue. There are many things said that annoy me, too, but guess this is just par for the course at times. I also hear lots of helpful comments, many of them from readers like you. Cancer or no cancer, we should all be allowed to stay true to ourselves. In fact, it should be encouraged. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Gratitude is indeed complex, like any genuine emotion we allow ourselves to feel. That includes the pleasant and the unpleasant. If we don’t experience that range of emotions, how could we appreciate what it means to feel content? Many life experiences have brought quite a range of emotions for me to feel, to process, to frame from my own perspective. Cancer is one of my life experiences. After my diagnosis, it brought hard and cold fear, it brought physical as well as emotional pain. But it also brought times of joy–waking up from surgery, hearing news of a clean scan, finishing chemo, feeling the support of loved ones, finishing my first marathon after my diagnosis with my husband by my side. I had been practicing gratitude for many years before my cancer diagnosis. Going through that difficult time gave me further opportunity to apply that practice. It made a difference. It still does. Thanks for the insightful post Nancy, and thanks also for the wisdom shared by the first two who commented.

    1. Lisa, I love how one way you practice gratitude is via your blog. It’s truly a reflection on how you choose to live your life. I agree the down times help us appreciate the pleasant parts of life more, but I don’t think we owe anything to cancer as far as gratitude goes. Life experiences make it necessary to experience a wide range of emotions. This is part of what makes us human. Thank you for sharing your insights on gratitude, Lisa.

  4. Gratitude is complex. I balk against the current “gratitude movement,” not because gratitude isn’t a good thing. Like anything, gratitude should come from an authentic place, often spontaneously, and not forced because some book or person said you should do it. Sometimes even the most positive person is negative, and that’s okay because life can be negative. It’s a genuine reaction. As for your doctor, Nancy? I had a similar experience once with an M.D. Doctors don’t know what to do with us, at least not in terms of the collateral damage, so they just spout off something to make our words go away. They pacify us. They don’t have all the answers but feel pressured to say something. I find it frustrating too.

    1. Eileen, Interesting, I hadn’t really thought about labeling this kind of thing as a gratitude movement. I do know I am so weary of trying to put a positive spin on everything, even cancer. That just doesn’t work for me. And yes, life is sometimes negative, so sometimes we need to feel accordingly, at least for a while. It’s part of processing through whatever it is. You make an interesting point about why some doctors say some of those things. You might be right. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  5. As you know, gratitude is one of those words/concepts I struggle with here in CancerLand. I’ve written about it before and am about to do so again.
    And you really hit the nail on the head about being able to be grateful and angry AT THE SAME TIME! I really, really, really resent the way so many people seem to think expressing “negativity” equals being ungrateful. Do they only feel one thing at a time. Honestly! Grrr….

    1. CC, As Eileen mentioned, negative things happen in life, so of course, we need to feel negatively sometimes. There is too much pressure to keep genuine feelings hidden if they do not conform to what is “expected”. And yes, we can be angry and grateful (or whatever) all at the same time. It’s not all or nothing. I look forward to reading your post. Thank you for reading mine and for commenting too.

  6. Most of us are capable of feeling more than one thing at the same time. I think people get into trouble when they assign a kind of value to our feelings. The words ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ or ‘grateful’ are so freighted, and we are tempted to infer that some feelings are ‘better’ than others. This is such nonsense, isn’t it? Feelings are just feelings. If we squash them, we’re just invalidating ourselves. Who needs that? Can’t process them or make peace with ourselves if we don’t acknowledge them. It’s not our feelings, after all, that make us who we are. It’s how we process them, how we think about them, and what we choose to do or not do that matters in the end. xoxo, Kathi

    1. Kathi, Yes, we are all definitely capable of feeling more than one way at the same time. I hate that all or nothing approach and so often it seems as if the only way we are supposed to feel is positive. Why must we try to turn everything into a positive anyway, especially something as horrible as cancer? I don’t get that. You are so right about what can and often does happen when we try to squash genuine feelings. Love your last two sentences. They say it all. Thank you for reading and sharing some thoughts on gratitude. xo

    1. Stephanie, I just checked out your response and I guess I was confused after reading. I guess we are in different places, and this is fine. Wishing you wellness too. Thanks for sharing the link.

  7. I have to tell you Nancy, the questions you present always get me thinking and thinking helps me sort out my emotions during this time of healing and recovery. Thank you. As to the question of gratitude, I’m lucky that my friends and family have never made me feel as though I’m ungrateful, even when I whine and complain about the newest side effect I’m facing. For the most part, they get it. The only time I think I was perceived as being ungrateful was an oncologist who spoke with me. He was actually an intern and did the initial consult with me before I started chemo. After explaining my cancer diagnosis and treatment, he asked me why I was so upset. His comment was “don’t you realize you are being offered treatment that is as close to a cure as we can offer”? I guess in his world I should consider myself grateful that 3 months of poison being pumped into my body and five years of drug induced menopause is something to be grateful for.
    In answer to your second question, I’m very grateful for many things after my diagnosis – but they are the same things I’ve always been grateful for. Through sickness and sorrow, life has always been precious and worthwhile to me and cancer hasn’t altered that attitude. I’m grateful for all the people in my life that have been helping me through this horrible event, but then again, I’ve always been grateful for their friendships and love. I think more than anything cancer has made me aware of how important it is to support others when they are sick or in need. For that I’m truly grateful.

    1. Lennox, Remember sharing your truths doesn’t mean you are whining or complaining. I’m glad you have some supportive friends. Sorry about that experience with your oncologist, his remark was pretty insensitive. I’m glad you say you are grateful for many of the same things that you’ve always been grateful for. Why does cancer so often get credit for making us more grateful, among other things? Seems like just another way to attempt to frame it as gift to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on gratitude. My best to you.

  8. Hi Nancy,

    Excellent, thought-provoking post! We live in a gratitude-focused society, where one appears ungrateful if he/she complains about collateral damage or having cancer. Cancerland is tricky. I believe one can voice outrage and still be grateful. People mistake being vocal with being ungrateful.

    For me, cancer was that wake-up call. This doesn’t mean I’m grateful to cancer because I’m not. But prior to cancer, my life was already spinning out of control for various reasons. Life was absolutely miserable and unbearable for me due to various horrible circumstances. However, once I was diagnosed with cancer, I realized very quickly that I was important and I had to take care of myself first. I did the thing I feared the most prior to cancer: separated from my husband and got a new job. I figured that compared to cancer, these actions were relatively easy.

    There is no right way to feel about cancer. I have a tremendous amount of collateral damage and am not happy I got cancer, nor do I think it was a gift. I have a team of mental health workers who help me cope. But cancer was a wake-up call for me (and I cannot expect it to be a wake-up call for anyone else).

    Thank you for this excellent, insightful post about the complexities of gratitude.

    1. Beth, I think you’re right about that gratitude-focused society we live in, which is fine, except when it feels forced or not genuine, or something. Or that we must feel grateful for each and everything that happens to us. And yes, many people mistake being vocal for being ungrateful, which is completely unfair and untrue in most cases. I know that for you cancer was a wake-up call and I respect that. As you said, we all feel differently. Thank you for sharing.

  9. While I am grateful to be alive after the past eight months of chemo, surgery and radiation, I was grateful before cancer disrupted my life. I appreciate people like you who let me know it is OK to not “do cancer” in a certain way, and that we all have our own set up experiences. Thank you for this lovely post on the complexities of life. Please keep writing. It is very encouraging.

  10. Hi Nancy, I am a cancer patient. I don’t say survivor yet because I just finished treatment last week and feel that it’s just too soon to say survivor. We’ll see. But I am one of those eternally positive people who others find very annoying….especially other cancer patients. While some people are more vocal about the awful side effects and what they’re going through, it doesn’t help me to voice my pains and problems. I was always the one listening to the others and offering remedies. Some people seemed bitter that I DIDN’T complain. Plus, I think I may have been trying to shield my loved ones. I didn’t want to make it more difficult for them if they thought I was “suffering.” I would just tell the doctor, and if he had something to alleviate my problem, then great. Most of the time, he did. If not, well, I adapted in one way or another. I have also always been grateful for the good things in life even prior to cancer. And I AM happy to be alive. Did I find cancer to be a gift? Of course not. Do I complain about it? Nope. Do I think I am courageous for going through it this way? Also, nope. I did not chose to take this on….so it is not courageous. I had no other choice. So I made the best of it and did what I had to do to survive. It’s not like going into a burning building to save others. It’s simply self preservation. Kind of selfish, really. But I don’t fault others for needing to vent or voice how they feel. I guess what I’m trying to say is that everyone is truly different, and we all handle these experiences in our own way…whatever works.

    1. Patti, I completely agree. Everyone is truly different and we are all entitled to handle this stuff in any way we choose. The whole point of my blog and book, too, is to encourage this very concept. Too often cancer patients are stuffed into some sort of “how to do cancer box.” And if we don’t follow the “rules” we are considered to be ungrateful or negative. That is not okay. Thank you very much for sharing.

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