Eliminate the Negative, Accentuate the Positive

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Eliminate the Negative, Accentuate the Positive

I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.

~Abraham Lincoln

One chilly January day twenty-two years ago, I sat in an examining room, waiting for the results of yet another biopsy. Six months earlier, at the age of thirty-eight, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a mastectomy and reconstruction. But a suspicious rash had appeared on my reconstructed breast and I was waiting to hear the results of the lab report.

My doctor entered the room with a look of concern. “Georgia,” he said, “I’m sorry but it’s a recurrence of breast cancer.”

My head started to spin and I felt that familiar awful ache in the pit of my stomach.

But my feelings were not exactly like the first time I was told I had cancer. There was no shock. There was no numbness. There was no denying what was happening. It was serious and I knew it.

Although I can’t recall everything the surgeon said that day, I do remember what happened when he left the room. His nurse, Vickie, who was only a few years younger than I was, looked over at me with deep concern.

My eyes met hers and I burst into tears. “I don’t want to die. My son is only nine years old,” I sobbed. “I want to live to see him graduate from high school.” I started rocking back and forth and kept repeating, “I just want to see my son graduate from high school.”

Vickie didn’t tell me I would see my son Kyle graduate. She didn’t tell me I wouldn’t. She listened, held me tightly and handed me one tissue after another.

I don’t know how long I stayed in that examining room, but I do know that she stayed with me and she ached with me.

During the days that followed, I discovered I had a slim chance of being alive in ten years. My only hope for long-term survival was chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant.

I had all those treatments. When they were complete, my cancer was in remission, but I was a mere shell of a person. As Kyle said years later, “Mom, you were a ghost in a shell.”

Through my experience with cancer, I learned the powerful impact of one caring person. Whether that person is a doctor’s assistant like Vickie, a counselor, a friend or a relative — it’s one person who can make a positive difference.

The harsh reality is that I also became painfully aware that some people are not positive and life giving. Rather, their negative or thoughtless interactions are draining and, in some cases, toxic.

For example, one day a “friend” took me to a chemotherapy treatment. For the 50-minute drive, she told me one painful story after another about people who had faced cancer. At one point I asked, “Can we talk about something besides cancer?”

She did. For five minutes. And then the litany began again.

After previous treatments, I had never gotten sick. After that treatment, I was sick for two days.

I learned the hard way that I needed to protect myself as much as possible from contact with that kind of negative or thoughtless person. At the very least I had to distance myself from certain people and acquire the ability to say no. This was especially difficult because I had been taught to be kind to everyone. I had never recognized the importance of setting clear boundaries with some people. I had never realized that just like the weeds in a garden rob the flowers of vital moisture, nutrients and sunlight, so too the “weeds” in my life were robbing me of the vital energy I needed to fight cancer and heal. I could not afford to allow interactions with negative people to steal the few resources I had left.

In a perfect world, everyone gathers around cancer survivors and supports them in the way they need to be supported. Since this isn’t a perfect world, I needed to make two changes. I needed to eliminate the negative as much as possible and then accentuate the positive. Like the flowers in my garden turn toward the sun, I decided to focus on the loving, beautiful connections in my life. I chose to truly appreciate and treasure the people who cared for me and doted on me. I know I would not be here today without all the support I received.

Seventeen years later, I called Vickie the nurse and asked to meet with her.

“Vickie,” I said when we met, “I want to thank you again. You have no idea of the impact that your warmth and compassion made in my life.” Tears of gratitude streamed down my cheeks.

She looked at me and shook her head in amazement. “You just never know, do you? I had no idea what that meant to you that day.”

Like Vickie, many people give us a hug, make an affirming comment or lend a helping hand and never think about it again. They don’t realize that it makes all the difference to us as cancer survivors when we sometimes wonder how we’ll make it through another day. It’s that positive nurturing connection, that heart-to-heart connection, that not only will counteract all those sterile needles or machines we have to face, but will continue to warm our hearts years later even on the chilliest of winter days.

~Georgia Shaffer

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