How A Cancer Diagnosis Taught Me Gratitude

I board the plane home from my vacation in Puerto Rico. Sitting next to me is an adorable couple in their 70s. The wife is nervous, so her husband reaches over and grasps her hand. I wonder if this is some flying ritual they've perfected over their shared decades. I look over at my own husband, who's sitting in the aisle across from me, and I'm overcome with sadness. Odds are that I will never reach my 70's. Sometimes, I fear I'll never see 40.

This is the reality of a cancer survivor. We live in intervals. Right now, my life is based on a three-month cycle. That's how often I'm scanned for any hint of a reoccurrence. I mark the day on my calendar and make sure not to make any plans after that, just in case. Once I get the clear from my doctor, I can fill up my days. Until, of course, the next scheduled scan. If all goes well for long enough, the scans will be scheduled every six months, then every year, and so on. This makes day-to-day life pretty frustrating, never mind vacations. This trip was a Valentine's Day gift from my husband. He booked it in February, between scans. I guess I'm not the only one living a life in intervals.

Still, I am grateful for this time. I wake up every morning and give thanks. Before my feet touch the floor, I say a prayer of gratitude. How could I not? In 2011, I was given 18 months to live. I'm now in remission. I'd be a fool to take a moment for granted. But, unfortunately, I wasn't always so appreciative of the life I was given.

I've made so many bad decisions in my life, I've lost count. Abusive relationships, drugs, promiscuity, alcohol — the list goes on and on. I hated myself for a long time. I always had something to blame for that self-loathing, though. If only I were thinner, smarter, richer, I would be happy. But whenever I attained whatever I'd hoped for, I found myself more miserable. I kept changing the tires, never realizing it was my alignment that was totally off.

A therapist once told me I was born a hundred-room mansion. Throughout my life, different people have said that various parts of me were wrong or bad, forcing me to close the doors to those rooms. By the time I reached 30, I'd become a studio apartment. I needed to blow the doors off of those rooms. I needed to embrace it all. But how?

I struggled with this deeply. A cycle soon began of feeling emotionally and spiritually fantastic, only to quickly spiral back into old habits. I desperately needed people to love me, to fill that bottomless void within me that I couldn't manage to fill myself. When the people in my life couldn't give me what I needed, I filled the hole with stuff: jewelry, clothes, cars. I was a nonstop shopper.

But it was never enough. Late one night, I fell to my knees and begged for help. I couldn't go on like this. Please God, take this emptiness away from me. Please help me find my way. Not long after, I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. God works in mysterious ways.

Since the diagnosis, I've taken life at a much slower pace. I'm no longer too concerned with the reasons I was in so much pain for so long. Instead, when those feelings of unworthiness set in, I sit with them and think, "What do I need at this particular moment?" Sometimes, it's as simple as hearing a friend tell me she's happy I called. Other times, I need to rest my head in my husband's lap and let my fears fade away as he gives me a great scalp massage. A few face licks from my dog will always stop any chaos in my head. Dogs are great like that.

Last month, I attended a retreat run by writer and Manifestation Yoga creator Jennifer Pastiloff. She asked us to list our 5 Most Beautiful Things. These were things that, throughout the day, brought us happiness. She told us to turn to this list whenever we needed a reminder of our joy; a reminder that things get better.

Now, whenever I'm feeling down on myself, instead of thinking that I'm a total loser, I think of that list and try to add to it. Even with the dreaded scan hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles, I can find joy and happiness in this world. That list keeps getting longer and longer.

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