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When Cancer Comes Calling:

Gratitude as a Source of Meaning, Hope, & Strength

by Kerry Cox Irish, LCSW, OSW-C

Wellness image

May was in her early 30s when she was diagnosed with ad­vanced breast cancer. When we met, she was using a wheelchair, no longer able to walk due to spinal me­tastases. May described herself as “an open book.” And, indeed, she gener­ously shared her life’s story with me and with others in the weekly cancer support group I was leading.

May had experienced a difficult child­hood in which she’d endured horrific physical and emotional abuse. She ran away from home at age 16 and spent the next few years living on the streets and in homeless shelters. She turned to pros­titution to support a drug habit in her early 20s. At age 28, she was hospital­ized for a serious infection related to her intravenous drug use.

While in the hospital, she had an en­counter with a kindly nun that drastically changed her life. This meeting led her to enter rehab and then move into a home for women in recovery. By the time she was diagnosed with cancer, she’d been clean and sober for five years, had ob­tained an associate’s degree in early childhood education, and was working as a teacher’s aide in a preschool for chil­dren with developmental disabilities.

One thing I’ve learned time and again from people living with cancer is that gratitude is not contingent upon external circumstances.

Author of Article photo

Kerry Irish

May freely expressed grief about her terminal illness, but she also dis­played a deep sense of gratitude every time I saw her. She kept a gratitude journal, writing down both the profound and small blessings she’d experienced each day. Her stories and reflections in our counseling and support group sessions were always peppered with the phrase, “I’m just so grateful that ….” She expressed gratitude for the care she had received, her ongoing sobriety, the cards her former students sent her, the view from her apartment window. She never left our group meetings with­out hugging each member, thanking them for teaching her and giving her strength through sharing their own struggles.

Choosing Gratitude in Any Circumstance
As an oncology social worker, one thing I’ve learned time and again from people living with cancer is that grati­tude is not contingent upon external circumstances. Some of the most grate­ful people I know are, much like May, dealing with situations that appear any­thing but fortunate. They live in poverty, are disabled or are seriously or terminally ill, have histories of abuse or abandon­ment. Yet it seems they look out at the world with grateful eyes regardless of their circumstances. They meet each day with a recognition of its abundance and not its lack.

There is nothing Pollyannaish about their attitudes, as some cynics might claim. Nor are they in denial about the challenges they face. Rather, they seem both deeply rooted in reality and deeply rooted in awareness that life still has gifts to offer, sometimes because of, and not just in spite of, these challenges.

A growing body of scientific research indicates that cultivating an attitude of gratitude has measurable effects on both physical and mental health. The benefits include improved sleep, reduced pain, greater resilience, and fewer symptoms of depression.

Take, for example, Shawnda, a 49-year-old stage III ovarian cancer survi­vor. She says, “Yes, cancer sucks and I never would have asked for it, but I can’t deny that it has brought bless­ings into my life too. The friends I’ve made in support group, the love and care I’ve been shown by my family, the awareness that my life is a precious gift, something I never really knew, at least not deep in my bones, before … these are blessings, and for these, I am thankful.”

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude
In addition to the common-sense knowledge that gratitude is a key ingre­dient in the experience of joy, a growing body of scientific research indicates that cultivating an attitude of gratitude has measurable effects on both physical and mental health. The benefits include improved sleep, reduced pain, greater resilience, and fewer symptoms of depression.

It is natural in times of fear, pain, or uncertainty to have difficulty tapping into feelings of gratitude. During these times, reconnecting with gratitude may require intentionality and practice. Some people find it ben­eficial to pray, asking for help in removing any bar­riers to feeling gratitude so that they are able to perceive and ap­preciate their blessings. Others may find it helpful to write a statement of intention. For example: May I re­main open and willing to perceive my blessings today. May my heart overflow with gratitude.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Bene­dictine monk who is the founder and senior advisor for A Network for Grate­ful Living, suggests following a very simple method of “stop, look, go” to deepen one’s sense of gratefulness. He explains that most of the time, we’re so caught up in the daily rush of life, with our attention ever attuned to the future, striving to manage busy schedules and deadlines, that we don’t take the time to practice gratitude.

Brother Steindl-Rast explains, “[T]he first thing is that we have to stop, be­cause otherwise we are not really coming into this present moment at all. And we can’t even appreciate the opportunity that is given to us because we rush by and it rushes by. So, stopping is the first thing. But that doesn’t have to be long … a split second is enough to stop. And then you look. What is, now, the oppor­tunity of this given moment? Only this moment, the unique opportunity this moment gives? And that is where beholding comes in.”

Beholding means to look deeply, to truly see something. This often gives rise to an experience of awe and appreciation. Much of the time, when someone has been diagnosed with a serious illness, the conditions for being able to “stop and look” – or to behold – ripen. Many matters that previously occupied your atten­tion fall away, as does the ability and the desire to rush. Beholding becomes more possible.

John, a 66-year-old man living with multiple myeloma, reflects, “I used to be a runner, and one of my favorite running routes was the Marginal Way [an Oceanside path in Ogunquit, ME]. I ran it so often that, over time, I failed to see my stunning surroundings. I was more tuned in to my sports watch, moni­toring my pace and feeling annoyed with the ‘pokey’ tourists who were slowing me down. When I walk the path now, it’s slowly. Slow is all I can do, and I’m coming to appreciate what a gift slow can be. I am literally ‘stop­ping to smell the roses’ (wild beach roses line the path). I’m hearing the surf, and the gulls, and the sound of my own shuffling feet. I’m awed by the sights of the cliffs and the ocean in a way that I never was before.”

The last step is to go, to make use of the way in which you’ve been moved or touched, to allow it to flow through you. Some might call this “paying it forward,” or contributing to the happi­ness of another without any expectation of return. This doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; it can be as simple as offering a warm smile and sincere compliment to a stranger.

If you’ve ever been the recipient of a “random act of kindness” – such as having the person ahead of you pay for your coffee – you know that these seemingly insignificant acts have a way of lifting your spirits and renewing your sense of joy and connection to others. But these acts of kindness don’t just bring joy to the recipient. In offer­ing kindness (or being a blessing, as Brother Steindl-Rast calls it), we renew our own spirits as well.

When you practice intentional grati­tude – whether through “stop, look, go” or another method – you may just find the strength, hope, and resolution you need to live a joyful life, no matter your circumstances.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kerry Irish has worked in oncology and hospice-care settings since 1995, and was intimately involved in the creation and de­velopment of the Dempsey Center (a cancer support center in Lewiston, ME, that pro­motes hope and healing to anyone affected by cancer). She serves as a psychotherapist and the psychosocial services manager for the Center. An active member of the Asso­ciation of Oncology Social Work, Kerry specializes in working with people coping with advanced cancer (either as survivors or caregivers). She is writing a book about finding meaning and hope when illness is advanced.

In addition to “stop, look, go,” many other practices can help you cultivate an attitude of gratitude. One gratitude practice that seems to work well for many cancer survivors is keeping a daily gratitude journal. Your gratitude journal is a place where you can list what you are grateful for each day. All you need to get started is paper and a pen (or a screen and keyboard if you’re the digital type). Why not give it a try?

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.