Finding Happiness after Cancer

Finding Happiness after Cancer Gary Grieger

by Gary Grieger

For the past 17 years, my family and I have been dealing with cancer. No one has heard us complain or seen us feel sorry for ourselves, because we have no reason to. We are strong; we are together; we have a great life, and I am winning my battle with cancer every day.

To me, winning is getting up every morning and feeling blessed for all that I have. Each day, I think about what I want to accomplish. I feel the need to do something every day, whether I’m in the hospital or at home, whether I feel good or not so good. I need a specific goal to focus on. Some days, my goal might be a challenging one, and, some days, it might simply be telling my wife and kids I love them. Every day, I give myself the opportunity to experience some success when I accomplish my goal.

In October 1999, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and my prognosis was not good. But, life expectancy numbers are just that, numbers. I was determined to fight to be here longer then my numbers said I would. I knew that it was important to keep a positive attitude and make the most of the time I had left. I pledged to find some happiness in each day I was alive. 

I know it’s possible to deal with cancer and still find happiness each day because I’ve been doing it for more than 17 years. During my 17-year cancer journey, I have dealt with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, two stem cell transplants, several types of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, clinical trials, and more than ten bouts of pneumonia. Various medications have significantly damaged my right shoulder and lower spine, and my kidneys need dialysis. But I’ve learned there are things in my life that mean so much to me they override any pain cancer has caused. They motivate me to keep fighting, to stay positive, and to never give up. 

After my second stem cell transplant on January 29, 2016, I was released and re-hospitalized nine separate times as my body struggled to accept a donor’s stem cells. Between graft-versus-host disease, pneumonia, and fighting off a variety of viruses, I was challenged like I had never been challenged before. There were times when I truly struggled to stay upbeat and positive. 

I know it’s possible to deal with cancer and still find happiness each day because I’ve been doing it for more than 17 years.

But, during that time, I leaned on a technique I developed on just the second day of my cancer journey. On that second day after diagnosis, I began keeping a log of special moments that I’ve been fortunate to experience since getting cancer. Reviewing that log and reliving those moments never fails to bring me joy. 

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Meditation has also been a valuable tool in helping me handle living with pain and uncertainty. It can be done anywhere and anytime. Sometimes, I meditate several times a day if I need to. Meditating allows me to overcome negative thoughts and feelings.

One negative feeling that I deal with often is survivor’s guilt. To me, survivor’s guilt is wondering why I’m still here enjoying life when so many friends have lost their battle. It’s true that I’ve been through a lot, but I am still here. For nearly 18 years, I’ve been filling up my special moment log and watching my kids grow into the impressive adults they are today. 

As a cancer survivor, it’s always been important to me to try to be a positive role model and show other survivors that it is possible to live a great life when you have cancer. Sometimes, however, no matter what I’m doing, it doesn’t feel like I am doing enough. I know there are more people I could be calling or visiting or encouraging. So many survivors don’t have the support system I have, and I feel the unfairness of it deeply. But, then, I remind myself that’s just the survivor’s guilt talking. And I press on.

Looking back over my journey, I realize there’s been one constant through it all – a local cancer organization called the Wellness House. I can honestly say that the Wellness House changed my life. When I first found out about them, I had never been in a support group before and wasn’t sure what to expect. Now, 17 years later, I still learn something new every time I go. The weekly support groups have been a lifeline for me.

And I guess, in sharing my journey, that’s what I want to give you. Whether it’s setting daily goals, keeping a special moment log, meditation, or joining a support group, I hope you find the thing that will keep you going when you’re facing the challenges of cancer.

Gary Grieger is a non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia survivor living in Lombard, IL.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2017.

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