Being Thankful, Even Through Cancer

“Happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.”
– Friedrich Koenig

You know the phrase, “make every day Earth Day?” Perhaps it’s time to apply that same school of thought to Thanksgiving. Consider giving thanks regularly – even when it seems like life is doing everything in its power to make that impossible.

It’s easy to think of gratitude as something passive – something that you feel as a result of something else happening to you. I’m grateful for the nice birthday gift I just got. Or I’m grateful that chemo session is over. And that’s a good thing. Taking a moment to acknowledge something good (or, more often that not, something not bad) that’s happened to you can be an instant mood booster.

But to reap the rewards of gratitude, consider making it something you actively practice on a daily basis. And those rewards may extend beyond merely feeling good.

According to research from the University of California, Berkeley, researchers have found that people who consistently practice gratitude report a variety of benefits, both emotional and, surprisingly, physical. The benefits include experiencing more optimism and happiness; feeling more alert, alive, and awake; being less lonely and isolated; building stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure; being less bothered by aches and pains; and getting better sleep at night. If there were a pill that could do all that, wouldn’t you ask your doctor for a prescription?

Of course, cancer – whether you’ve got it, or love someone who does – makes feeling thankful more of a challenge. Often, there are a lot of other feelings that come to the forefront far ahead of gratitude: emotions like anger, regret, and sadness, to name only a few. All of which are justified. All of which can have a crippling emotional and physical effect if you allow them to dominate your life.

If we are open to it, even cancer can leave things to be grateful for. But don’t take our word for it. As Joel Baumgard, who faces a terminal diagnosis, wrote in the SU2C blog:

“Cancer is the best and worse thing that’s ever happened to me. It has made crystal clear what is important in life – my relationships with my loved ones… So while obviously I wish the circumstances were a little different, I consider myself so blessed for the time I do have to spend with Denise and Ross.”

Comedian Tig Notaro told us that:

“I’m always keenly aware that no matter how horrible things get in life, it never takes anything away from all of the remarkably great things that have happened along the way. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been in love, I’ve seen my dreams realized beyond expectation, I’ve laughed so hard it made me physically ill.”

While two-time survivor Sean Swarner wrote:

“At the end of the day, for anyone affected by cancer, it’s about cherishing the time with those you love and powering through every day.”

So how can you make gratitude an active practice? Here are a few suggestions, inspired by the Berkeley research:

Write it down. Jot down what you’re thankful for in a journal, an email, a sticky note, or whatever your favorite method may be.

Say it. Think about gratitude as a form of meditation or prayer. And don’t just keep it to yourself! Telling someone in your life that you’re grateful for him or her will brighten both your days.

Don’t feel bad. Sometimes you’ll struggle to find anything to be grateful for. Or you’ll write something down and not feel like it’s 100% true. That’s okay. It’s still worth it.

Stick to it. Pick a time of day to express your gratitude on paper or aloud, and do it every day. Try during your morning coffee, your lunch break, or at night before bed. Being grateful is like doing push-ups: the more you do it, the better the results!

Ironically, Thanksgiving can end up being one of the more stressful days of the year. Whether it’s the family dynamics, planning a big dinner, getting ready for the holiday gift-giving season, or maybe thinking about those loved ones who aren’t there, it can trigger more anxiety than gratitude.

But, like any challenge, how you approach it makes all the difference. So take this moment to start your practice of making every day Thanksgiving, and cherish the gift that is our time on this earth.

Stand Up 2 Cancer Blog
November 21, 2012

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