The Seventh Blessing of Cancer: Greater Gratitude

The saying goes “If you have your health, you have everything.” With my health on hold, cancer is teaching me about the true nature of gratitude.

My life will never be perfect. Logically, I already knew this, but it is so easy to wait to be happy – for the job to take off, the house to be clean, the kids to be more independent, my health to return. If life’s circumstances would just get into alignment with my expectations, then I’d really have something to be grateful for!

Has the selfish nature of this expectation ever been so exposed? Now that I can see it so clearly, I laugh at the ridiculousness of waiting to be happy, for gratitude and happiness come hand in hand.

“A man only begins to be a man when he ceases to whine and revile, and commences to search for the hidden justice which regulates his life. And as he adapts his mind to that regulating factor, he ceases to accuse others as the cause of his condition, and builds himself up in strong and noble thoughts; ceases to kick against circumstances, but begins to use them as aids to his more rapid progress, and as a means of discovering the hidden powers and possibilities within himself.” As a Man Thinketh, James Allen.

It may be human nature to focus on what is lacking, to blame others for present circumstances and to ignore blessings received, but it produces ingratitude, which leads to sorrow and depression.

It strikes me that I cannot simultaneously complain and be grateful. It is impossible. I must pick one or the other at any given moment. I am either grateful or ungrateful, and as a consequence, happy or unhappy.

“Both abundance and lack [of abundance] exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend … when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present—love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature, and personal pursuits that bring us [happiness]—the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience heaven on earth.” Sarah Ban Breathnach, in John Cook, comp., The Book of Positive Quotations, 2nd ed. (2007), 342.

Being in a health crisis has given me greater awareness of my blessings. I am more grateful for the gift of life and the opportunities for growth it provides. I have greater appreciation for the gifts of nature; of air to breathe and sun to warm. Being away from my husband and children has given me greater appreciation for the amazing people that they are, and for the divine institution of the family. Receiving so much service has made me very aware of the compassion and goodness of the people around me.

Someone said that unexpressed gratitude is like wrapping a gift and never giving it. I am learning to spend more time expressing my gratitude in thank you notes, emails and phone calls. Expressing my gratitude in prayer for all that I have been given has also changed me. When I choose gratitude, I am measurably happier.

Can I actually be grateful for adversity? This may be the true test of my gratitude or lack of it. I know that adversity brings me to my knees, a “remembrance” of all I have been given and humility that the world is not here to cater to my demands. As James Allen stated, it may mean that I grow at a more rapid pace and discover strengths within myself I never knew I had. It may also open doors of opportunity and give me the courage to create something of value for others.

After learning the story of Kathy Giusti, the founder of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, I see how this is possible. When she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1996, there was a 3 year life expectancy with no treatment path and no effective myeloma drugs. She was married with a one-year-old baby. She decided to have another baby and received a bone-strengthener. She and her sister founded the MMRF, now one of the top foundations in the nation. Because of her courage to create a foundation that would bring together research, pharmaceutical companies, care facilities and patients, she propelled the research forward. Today, there is a treatment path and known drugs that have doubled life expectancy. Because she brought multiple groups together, the myeloma drugs are approved 35-40% faster than other drugs. In 2005, she received a bone marrow transplant with her twin sister as a donor. Fifteen years later, she has watched her children grow and is there to raise them. Was she grateful to have myeloma? I can’t say, but I am grateful she had myeloma because she changed my future dramatically.

I may not now understand the hidden blessings that will come as a result of adversity, but I know that they will unfold in time. I suspect they will become more obvious as I decide to look outside myself to the service that I can provide to others.

I understand now why “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Cicero, in A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles, sel. H. L. Mencken (1942), 491.

Gratitude is the wellspring of happiness, the foundation of humility, the origin of optimism and the source of vision. Because of cancer, I will forever be more grateful.

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