How Cancer Taught Me Gratefulness

I learned about gratefulness when I was diagnosed with cancer.  Not that I was grateful to have cancer!  But it opened my eyes to what was good about my life, and to celebrate it, because who knew what the future held?

I used to live only in the future.  Living in the present seemed like a nice idea, but I could never do it.  There was always that next project at work, or would my boyfriend ever marry me (he did), then dinner with my in-laws (with whom I did not get along).  Let me get through that first, and then I'll worry about the present, I thought.

But cancer's a funny thing.  When you're told you have it, you kind of don't want to live in the future anymore, because who knows what it holds?

I had a friend who was diagnosed with Stage 4 renal cancer when I was going through treatment.  Friends and I would go sit with her when she was having chemo (I remember running hot water over her hands to try to get her veins to open up).   But what amazed me most was that she was grateful.  Going to a Broadway show with her family.  Getting a new car.  She lived in the moment.  She didn't look any further than that.

I wondered how she could be happy, with this horrible thing in the future hanging over her, but somehow she was.  She didn't think about the future, she lived in the moment.  And when she was dying, at the end, we all visited her in her hospital room, and somehow, she was at peace.  

I was luckier than her.  Though I did have a recurrence two years later, I've now been "cancer-free" for 10 years.  But Dana taught me that no one knows what lies in the future and to worry about it steals from the time we have now.

A new study has found that expressing gratitude makes us healthier.  I now greet the morning sun with happiness, am thrilled to see the forsythia bloom, feel warmth in my soul when a baby reaches for my finger.  I never did any of that BC (before cancer).

Expression of gratitude is a good thing for our minds and bodies, according to Authors Stephen M. Yoshimura and Kassandra Berzins explored the connection between gratitude expression and psychological and physical well-being. And positivity provides positive results for our well-being.

Big duh.

But not enough research has been done on the communication of gratitude and its effect on well-being, the authors said, and we should do more of just that.

Gratitude is a different emotion from happiness because it so often stems from the actions of another individual. “To experience it, one must receive a message, and interpret the message,” the authors write.
Numerous studies show that expressing and experiencing gratitude increases life satisfaction, vitality, hope, and optimism.

Moreover, it contributes to decreased levels of depression, anxiety, envy, and job-related stress and burnout. Intriguingly, people who experience and express gratitude have reported fewer symptoms of physical illness, more exercise, and better quality of sleep, reports.

While the immediate effects of gratitude expression are clear, the authors argue that it also contributes to long-term success in relationships and personal well-being.

Researchers don't know why but it seems that an expression of gratitude to your partner can last up to six months.   (Though, sadly, not in my house!)  But I have found that thanking people thanks me.  Giving a "thank you" to someone seems to bounce back on me.

And as when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I learned to look for things to be grateful for.  And that's the biggest thing I thank my cancer for.


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