More than a Word: Gratitude
By Pat Battaglia, Associate Director of Communications
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a 97-year-old scholar, author, and Benedictine monk, once said that “The root of joy is gratefulness…it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” Yet those in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis may be hard-pressed to find a sense of appreciation for life’s gifts when facing surgery or other forms of treatment, or while recovering from them.
Still, gratitude can find us despite life’s most difficult challenges. Or, perhaps ironically, because of them. Sheryl C., a breast cancer survivor, says, “To me, gratitude means being thankful for all that I have, and in that, I feel very blessed to have so much. I have family and friends that care about me, a comfortable home to live in, a solid education, plenty of food to eat, and enough money to have a car and pay the bills.”
For Nicolette F., another survivor of breast cancer, gratitude is fluid. “Gratitude, for me in this moment, means a reconnecting to my true self, a renewal of my purpose and a commitment to being the best version of me.”
Developing a practice
To develop a practice means making a commitment to engage in an activity regularly and with intention in order to become more adept. For example, many people practice a musical instrument. Others may practice a sport or other physical activity. And much like a muscle or an innate talent, gratitude can grow stronger with practice.
There are innumerable ways to practice gratitude, each one as individual as the person engaging in the practice. Some may keep a gratitude journal, pausing to consider and write down the things they are grateful for at regular intervals. Others are intentional about performing acts of kindness throughout their day, evoking gratitude in others while giving their own gratitude muscles a workout. And many who meditate regularly focus on gratitude during their sessions.
“Giving back to my family and friends has always been a part of my upbringing and will never change,” says Sheryl. “I try to give back to my church in any way I can and I’ve recently had training to become a PALS mentor at the Coalition. There are many ways to show gratitude and I try to find a way, however small it might seem, to give back.”
However, when diagnosed with cancer, even the best intentions and most deeply ingrained practices can fall to the wayside in the face of more pressing concerns.
If cancer was a gift, those who have been diagnosed would contact the returns department in a heartbeat. Still, alongside a host of difficult emotions in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, the sense of gratitude often finds fertile ground on which to grow anew. Grief and gratefulness can exist at the same time in the same person. Instead of being an “either, or” proposition, carrying trauma and gratitude can be a “both, and” experience.
During her walk with breast cancer, gratitude found Sheryl through unexpected gestures of kindness. “If anything, I think my gratitude has grown deeper since my diagnosis,” she shares. “During my treatment, often the simplest thing
would touch me very deeply, like an unexpected flower bouquet from a friend when I least expected it. I still think of that day and how good that little bouquet made me feel.”
Gratitude continues to be a companion on Nicolette’s continuing life journey. “I am so blessed and truly grateful to be alive and surrounded by family and friends who love and support me. I have so much gratitude for an already successful, amazing, and fulfilling life, that my diagnosis and treatment reminded me that we are not meant to be on earth forever. This life is a gift. In gratitude, I strive to get and give, learn and teach, love and be loved.”
Cancer touches different lives in greatly diverse ways. Fortunately, so does gratitude. While it may be unreasonable to expect gratitude-on-demand from anyone affected by cancer, it is equally inaccurate to presume that gratitude will never return. As Sheryl, Nicolette, and so many other cancer survivors attest, keeping one’s eyes open to the possibilities for gratefulness that emerge – regardless of outward circumstances – offers healing.
Nicolette shares, “In practicing gratitude, I have resolved to mindfully be present in the now. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, I am breathing deeply and am thankful I am here to experience it all.”
This article appeared in the Coalition’s Winter 2024 newsletter, “Voices of the Ribbon.“
Ten Ways to Practice Gratitude
We offer these ideas to help stretch those gratitude muscles.
- Take time each day to notice the beauty in nature.
- Make it a habit to perform one act of kindness every day.
- Spend quality time with your loved ones.
- Keep a gratitude journal; resolve to write in it every day.
- Meditate on the good things and people in your life.
- Notice the positive qualities in others and compliment them.
- Avoid negative media messages and engage with more helpful content.
- Acknowledge anxious thoughts and create space for grateful ones to grow.
- If you neglect your practice, allow yourself to be human. Begin anew.
- Write thank you notes.