From Survivor to Survivor
by Dara Kurtz
I’ve always been a polite person. I say “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” on a regular basis. But just because I’m courteous doesn’t mean I live with gratitude. In fact, living a life of gratitude wasn’t something I ever thought about until I went through cancer. It was the hard days that taught me to be thankful for all the blessings in my life. Being able to recognize the good in your life, even when you’re going through a challenging experience, is important. It’s also something you get to decide. Living with gratitude is a choice.
When we’re facing a challenge, it can be difficult to find something to be grateful for. If life seems overwhelming, the last thing you want to do is count your blessings. I understand, I’ve been there. But what I’ve learned from the hard times in my life is it actually feels good to count your blessings, even when you’re struggling to get through the day. It’s important to remember there is almost always at least one reason to give thanks.
Cancer helped me to understand how important it is to be grateful for all the wonderful things in my life. I learned to not take my life for granted. To stop assuming the blessings in my life would always be there. For the first time in my life, I started seeing all the good things in front of me. I recognized how lucky I was just to wake up each morning and be alive, to have people in my life who loved and cared for me. I started noticing what was around me – the beautiful sunset, the pretty flowers, the birds chirping in the morning. I stopped expecting the good in my life to always be there and instead felt blessed to have it.
It’s easy to get a picture in your mind of how your life should be, but I don’t know many people whose lives are exactly as they planned. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a great life; it just means there was a deviation in the plan, and that’s OK. Instead of thinking about what didn’t happen, what you don’t have, or the hardships that have been tossed your way, look at all the positives. Focusing on what you feel is lacking can make you bitter and angry. You don’t need that in your life. Remember, our thoughts have a significant impact on the way we feel. Spend your time and energy being grateful by focusing on all the good you have in your life. If you tend to forget or overlook the blessings, keep a daily list of what you’re grateful for.
Even if you’re dealing with cancer, there are things in your life you’re fortunate to have. They might be hard to find, but they’re there.
I like to write in my journal when my family is still sleeping and I’m drinking a cup of hot tea. I sit in my kitchen with my dog, Winnie, and scribble down all I’m thankful for in that moment. Sometimes I have a lot of things to write. Other times, if life is feeling complicated and I’m dealing with a difficult challenge, I might struggle to think of even a few. I usually try to come up with at least three things. Now, I’ve trained my mind to automatically notice the blessings in my life and the good things that have happened to me. I love this about myself, and it can happen to you too. It just takes time and patience.
I don’t take it for granted that I’m here and able to watch my daughters grow up. I understand this isn’t something every parent gets to do. In fact, I’ve met people who weren’t as lucky as I am, and, in some ways, I feel I owe it to them to fully appreciate all the blessings in my life. Cancer showed me that just being with my family is a true blessing. Food tastes better, my interactions with people are more meaningful, and the conversations I have with others tend to be deeper and more authentic.
I’ve learned to live life as a grateful person, and that has made my life richer. As I was writing this, I decided to go back and look at my journal entries from when I was diagnosed through my treatment plan. I didn’t live with a lot of gratitude back then. I had just started trying to learn how to live a life of thankfulness, and it was very difficult. Those were some of the hardest days of my life. Here’s an example of the things I listed during that time:
• I’m grateful to have my family.
• I’m grateful to not be nauseous right now.
• I’m grateful for Netflix.
It’s pretty obvious where I was and how much I was struggling. But I was learning how to be thankful, even in dark times. I was training myself to see the glass half full. I felt so unhappy and sorry for myself during that time, I struggled with finding gratitude. Looking at my list now, I can see a difference in my approach. This is a direct result of the changes I’ve experienced since I went through cancer. I’ve grown a lot over the past few years, and my list reflects it.
If life seems overwhelming, the last thing you want to do is count your blessings. I understand, I’ve been there.
Sometimes we look for really big things to be thankful for when we take the time to count our blessings. We acknowledge the grand things in our life. Maybe it’s a new job, a new member of your family, or something else extra special. These things are easy to identify when we talk about feeling grateful. But what about the little things? The daily blessings we have in our lives that are easy to overlook? It’s not often we have big events in our lives. That’s why it’s important to find little things to feel happy about every day.You might be worried about your job, but you have a job. You might be bickering with your significant other, but you have a significant other to bicker with. Your kids might be driving you crazy, but you’re blessed to have them. You might be stressed about getting the results back from a medical exam, but you’re lucky to have a professional team to help you.
Life isn’t perfect, so don’t expect it to be. You’re just setting yourself up to be let down if you do. It doesn’t come in a perfectly wrapped package with a beautiful bow. It’s messy and made up of thousands of different moments. Some are good. Some are better. Some seriously suck. When I was being treated for cancer and feeling pretty bad, it was hard to remember I wouldn’t always feel sick from the side effects. I needed a big dose of perspective. Consider this your dose of perspective: Nothing lasts forever. Unfortunately, this also holds true for the wonderful parts of life, the times we want to go on forever because we’re so happy. If we don’t take the time to acknowledge the positive moments in life, we’ll miss them. And no one wants to miss the good stuff.
Focus on what you have. I get how hard your days might be right now and how easy it is to have a pity party. I’ve definitely had my share of those. But if you focus on what you don’t have, what’s lacking in your life, how you were dealt an unfair hand, and how nothing is going well for you, you won’t be helping yourself. Instead, think about what you do have, what is working, and how lucky you are. Yes, I said lucky. Even if you’re dealing with cancer, there are things in your life you’re fortunate to have. They might be hard to find, but they’re there. Be willing to take the time to look for the blessings in your life.
Here’s how you start feeling grateful for what you have: Sit and think about what you like about your life, what is working, and what makes you happy. Write down three things you feel grateful for right now, in your journal or on a sheet of paper. If you struggle with this a little bit, be patient. If you’ve been feeling sorry for yourself for a while and have been thinking nothing in your life is going well, it might take a little time to train your mind to look at things in a more positive way.
Quit complaining. Seriously. If something happens that you don’t like, every time you complain about it, you give it power. Focusing on it isn’t going to make things better; it’ll bring you down. Stop complaining and start doing.
For example, let’s say you’re having a rough day. You feel tired and depressed and you don’t have any energy. You’re worn out and just want to stay in bed all day and bask in your yuckiness. Whenever you talk to a friend or family member on the phone and they ask you how you are, you talk about how awful you feel, how exhausted you are, and how you’re tired of feeling sick. Since you’re probably talking to at least a couple people each day, you keep repeating the same negative story over and over. How are you helping yourself? You aren’t. In fact, you’re feeding the yuckiness by focusing on it. You are certainly entitled to feel this way, but thinking about it and talking about it won’t make you feel any better.
Instead, spend that energy doing something to help yourself feel better. Don’t focus on what you don’t have or don’t like, think about what you do have and what is going well. There is always something positive in your life.
Hold onto it with both hands.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42, Dara Kurtz left her 20-year career as a financial advisor to focus on writing, speaking, and mentoring. This article is adapted from her book Crush Cancer: Personal Enlightenment From A Cancer Survivor, in which Dara talks candidly about being diagnosed, telling her friends and family she has cancer, going through treatments, and learning to be a survivor. Dara currently lives in Lewisville, NC, with her husband, Jon, and their two teenage daughters, Zoe and Avi. You can learn more about Dara at CrazyPerfectLife.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2017.