We all hear the words “grateful” and “cancer” regularly enough, but it’s not often that we see them together in the same sentence. In fact, it is rare that mainstream media portrays anything remotely cancer-related in a positive light. More often than not when we hear the word cancer, the first thing that comes to mind are oncology wards, hospital gowns, bald heads, IV drips, and sadness. So much sadness.
I remember lying in a hospital bed, staring around at that sterile ward with its pallid walls, linoleum floors, and that harsh stench of bleach that always stung my nostrils, and all I could think was, “Where is the color? Where is the life? Why must everything associated with this disease be so damn depressing?”
The other day a friend of a friend reached out to me online. She had recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had come to me seeking advice. Her exact question was, “What was the one thing that made you get through it?” Normally I’d respond with a few words of encouragement, a platitude or cliché that I’d heard multiple times while dealing with the discovery of my diagnosis. But this time the question really made me stop and think. What was the one thing that had enabled my survival?
I mulled it over in my mind for a while, but, truth be told, the answer was there all along, embedded into the scars on my skin. The thing that had enabled me to live was an innate hunger. A voracity. A paralyzing and earth-shattering desire to live.
It isn’t as if I hadn’t wanted to live before I got sick. I’d always loved life. The main difference was that I was awake now. Being diagnosed with cancer had forced me to become acutely aware of the fragility of life. Suddenly facing your own mortality does something to you. You cannot help but be impacted by the sheer ephemerality of your own existence. And that realization changed everything for me. This was instead of dwelling on all the things that were wrong. On any one of the seemingly infinite worries that had plagued my mind before this diagnosis: my body and all its imperfections, my part-time waitressing job, my university grades, the boy who wasn’t texting me back, all the invented scenarios over why I wasn’t good enough or what my future might look like.
Suddenly all of it ceased to matter. All that remained was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. A formidable feeling of appreciation for everything around me, from the leaves on the trees to the infectious warmth of a stranger’s smile, to the wild temperament of the Atlantic Ocean, my dog, or the fresh flowers in a vase beside my bed. Everywhere I looked there was this abundance of things just waiting to be seen, noticed, and appreciated.
This is what kept me going. This is what drove me to carry on. To fight. To keep living.
That is why the dullness and vapidity of hospital wards infuriate me so much. Why don’t they design hospitals with more color, more life, more vivacity to reflect the inner working of their patient’s minds? To reflect the awakening going on inside.
I am grateful for cancer because before my diagnosis I was asleep. I was stuck inside a narrative of “if only … ” I was waiting for life to happen to me, instead of realizing that it was happening right now, right in front of me, everywhere I looked.
Getting sick was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, and yet at the same time the best thing that has ever happened to me because it woke me up. And yes, sure, there are times when I slip back into that victim mentality. When the comparisons, insecurities, and imperfections get to me. But it only takes thinking back to those days, lying in that hospital bed, to remember how valuable life truly is.
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.