61: The Ten Best Things

61: The Ten Best Things

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

The Ten Best Things

The best things in life aren’t things.
~Art Buchwald

“You know what I really can’t stand?” Wendy asks rhetorically. “It’s when people say cancer is a gift. I mean is that really something you’d like to receive? Would a friend give a friend cancer?”

“Yeah,” chimes in Alice. “Some gift. Can I give it back? Say I don’t want it? Maybe exchange it for something different?”

We are all getting in the spirit of it now. “Can we rewrap it and give it to someone else?”

“Or donate it to a white elephant sale?”

“Say politely, thanks but no thanks?”

As we all erupt into laughter, I sneak a glance around the room at the eight or so women assembled in a loose circle. The only prerequisite to joining this writing group was having received a cancer diagnosis at some previous point in our lives. A positive (in the clinical sense, that is) pathology report was our ticket for admission. A perk of getting cancer, if you will.

It’s kind of funny to group cancer and the idea of perks in the same thought, but for all that we are chortling about it, there has been a silver lining to being diagnosed with cancer, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent. Pollyanna wasn’t one of my favorite childhood books for nothing, and almost as soon as the initial shock of my diagnosis began to subside, I tried playing the “glad game,” like Pollyanna.

In the first place, I had to be grateful for all the technology and the vigilance of my doctor that enabled my cancer to be caught early, when it was, as they tell me, the most treatable. I held this thought close as I endured the treatment, reminding myself continually to focus on the future, and that this was merely the means to an end.

Time passed, and as my family and friends pulled around me, I slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, began to heal. The physical recovery, surprisingly enough, proceeded more rapidly than the emotional recovery. It took much longer to accustom myself to the uncertainty of life post-cancer. I was to discover that cancer challenges all of your basic assumptions and beliefs and causes you to reassess your priorities. Given that the average life expectancy for women in this country is somewhere around eighty years of age, I’d always figured I had plenty of time before I had to give serious thought to my own mortality. Cancer changed that all that.

The voice of Sharon, our group facilitator cuts through our laughter. “Let’s get started now,” she says. “While we’re all thinking about cancer, I want you to write about something that is different about your life as a result of being diagnosed with cancer. Take about fifteen minutes.”

Heads bend to the page, and pens move as everyone else begins writing. I alone stare vacantly out the picture window, tapping my pen, and thinking. What should I write about? How I stopped stressing so much about every little thing because suddenly everyday petty concerns didn’t seem as important? About all the compassionate people I met along the way as I embarked on my cancer journey? About how I became more open to taking risks, like walking into this writing group with absolutely no writing experience whatsoever, because after cancer nothing else looks really scary?

Slowly, I begin to write “The Ten Best Things about Cancer.” I stop and underline it several times before I continue.

There has to be a bright side. Every cloud has a silver lining after all.

Ten: I can never repeat the shock of the initial diagnosis.

Now that’s something. Isn’t that a bit like lightning never strikes twice? (Although sometimes it does.)

Nine: I appreciate each and every day now.
Even more than I did before.

Eight: I have something to talk about with people, if conversation ever lags.

Seven: I can almost guarantee that anyone I talk to has a cancer story of their own—themselves or a family member or a friend of a friend.

Six: I belong to an exclusive club of fighters and survivors.

Five: People tend to cut you some slack when they find out you’ve had cancer.

Four: I’ve met some truly amazing and inspiring people that I cannot conceive of having become acquainted with under any other circumstances, and for this, I’m truly grateful.

Three: I’ve learned that looking out for myself is not a luxury anymore, but a necessity.

Two: I’ve learned to stop and smell the proverbial roses (and tulips and crocuses and daffodils).

Finally, One: I am a survivor, as my pink shirt at next year’s Race for the Cure will surely attest to. I have battled my arch-nemesis, Cancer, and for now, I have prevailed.

The gong gently calls us to attention. “Come to a stopping place,” Sharon tells us, and there is a sudden furious scribbling of pens as everyone scrambles to wrap up their piece. As we go around the room sharing our writings, I am struck once again by the determination, courage and cautious optimism shown in the face of adversity by all the women in this room.

Over and over, I hear common themes echoed in the writings.

“I’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Amy reads.

“I stopped putting things off for the future. Besides attending this writing group, I’ve signed up for a watercolor class, something I always wanted to do.” This is from Kristy

And Donna: “I take the time now to explore life’s highways and byways, and enjoy the ride.”

And it gets me to thinking. Knowing what we know now, would any of us actually have chosen to have been diagnosed with cancer? The answer has to be emphatically no. I’m sure that I am speaking for all of us when I say we would have been glad to avoid the nerve-wracking wait for pathology results, the life-altering shock of diagnosis, being poked and prodded endlessly with needles, the surgeries, chemo and radiation treatments that tried the very limits of our endurance, and the relentless scans and blood tests to ensure that we remain, for the moment, cancer-free.

Yet for all that, one thing becomes patently clear to me. I doubt very much that any of us would give back what we have learned along the cancer journey: to be kinder, more compassionate, more life-affirming people and never to forget how much we still have to be grateful for. Cancer may not have been a gift, but it was certainly a wake-up call.

~Cara Holman

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