When you are receive a diagnosis of cancer, values shift rapidly, things that used to seem so important, like what other people say about you, what your job is, or how much you'd really love to have a bigger house, better car or earn more money, just fall away. Suddenly, all you care about is staying with the people you love for as long as you possibly can.
It's a roller coaster ride and many times I couldn't tell if I was upright, or hanging upside down. Particularly in the early days, I didn't know when I woke up whether I would feel well enough to get out of bed before lunch or if I would feel like climbing the neighbouring hill. Some days I was filled with gratitude and others felt empty and despairing.
I started to measure my life in months. 6 months of treatment, 1 month to recover, 1 month radiation, 3 months till first check... you get the idea.
As I slowed time down into these increments, I lost interest in things that had seemed so important previously and I found myself focused on much smaller things; how beautiful the blossoming Manuka tree was outside my bedroom window, 5 minutes spent cuddling one of my girls before they wiggled off of my lap to go do something else. There were break through moments when I suddenly felt like I "got it". But it also made me feel seperate and isolated from my friends and loved ones. I could no longer relate to other peoples concerns because many of them were now meaningless to me, my needs had become so basic.
I discovered a practice called gratitude journalling a couple years later when my Dad passed away and I wish that I had known more about it while I was going through treatment.
It's incredibly simple: write down three things each day that you're grateful for.
When you're going through treatment there is so much that will test you, and some days will be beyond hard. But if you can end every day taking note of just three things that you feel grateful for, you can create a shift that will carry you through some of your tougher days.
Gratitude practice has become much more commonplace over the last few years and science has even taken an interest, studying the long term effects with some fantastic results. From the Emmons Lab:
Summary of Findings
In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.
Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008).
This week I will go in for my 4 year check-up and now practicing gratitude has become a part of my every day life and of my familie's culture. Every night when we sit down at the table for dinner, we each share an "I am grateful..." (or two, or three!) and an "I brought value to the world today....". I felt a bit silly at the time, suggesting to my family that we adopt this practice, but I love the positive effect it has had on all of us. I can honestly say that I am filled with gratitude on a daily basis for my amazing family, and this beautiful life.
Yes a bit cheesy - but you get it!! Now go out and try it for a month, you won't regret it, I promise.