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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?

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 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.”

You might want to read, Of Course I’m Grateful to Be Alive, But…

That doctor’s 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 and do any of these things and at the same time, 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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A Thanksgiving Greeting


Friday 18th of December 2015

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 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.


Monday 21st of December 2015

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.


Tuesday 24th of November 2015

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.


Tuesday 24th of November 2015

Teresa, I appreciate your encouraging words too. Thank you.

Beth L. Gainer

Sunday 22nd of November 2015

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.


Monday 23rd of November 2015

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.


Saturday 21st of November 2015

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.


Monday 23rd of November 2015

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.

Stephanie Sugars

Friday 20th of November 2015

Hi Nancy,

Thank you for your ongoing work in exploring the complexities of a cancer diagnosis, gratitude and more.

I responded to this post and the title of your book at my blog today:

Let's just say, I'm at a really different place in my breast cancer journey.

Wishing you wellness along your way, Stephanie


Tuesday 24th of November 2015

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.

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