It’s Thanksgiving week and I think all my Facebook friends are posting a list of all the things they’re grateful for. I’ve decided I don’t want to do the expected thing and post my own list. Because if I did, it would include the typical:
1. My daughters
2. My family (especially my parents, who opened their home to me and my two children when I was newly diagnosed with cancer and left my husband)
3. My friends and loved ones
4. The luxury of traveling
…oops! I just started the list that I promised I wouldn’t. I think I’ll stop right there.
But on Friday, I headed off to my weekly oncology appointment. Though I’m in full remission from multiple myeloma (a blood cancer), I am on indefinite maintenance therapy, which includes a chemo pill that I take daily, and a weekly injection of another chemo-type drug. (Neither of these drugs cause hair loss– I already went through that!) I also get labs every three months. At that appointment, I got revaccinated. This was necessary because when I first entered treatment, I had two stem cell transplants, which wiped out my entire immune system. So all the vaccines I’ve had growing up were basically cancelled out. Here I was two years later getting new shots (progress!) because I was finally healthy enough to get them. And as I was sitting in clinic getting one poke after another (seven in total!), I started thinking about the radical direction my life has taken since getting cancer, and, wow, I realize how grateful I am for the experience. I mean, I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, and I’m not happy I got it. But I did, and cancer was the catalyst for many amazing life lessons and experiences.
So I think I’ll make a different kind of “grateful list”– a list of why I’m grateful for the Cancer Journey.
1. I got a divorce
I wanted a divorce since just months after the wedding. During our dating phase, my husband pretended to be someone he wasn’t– a nice (and sober) guy. Soon, his disturbing personality patterns emerged and a few months later, he confessed that he was an alcoholic– a highly functioning, closeted, raging alcoholic. Our marriage was a Hell that’s hard to describe. And as many times as I asked for a divorce, and dreamt of a world without my husband, I had yet to pull the trigger. The minute I found out I had cancer, that all changed in an instant. I left my husband within days of diagnosis. While divorce sucks, a bad marriage sucks a whole heck of a lot worse. Some people need to be cut out of our lives just like a tumor. My husband was one of them.
2. I learned to love my (imperfect) hair
When I lost all my hair (and my eyelashes and eyebrows), I wore wigs everywhere I went. I had great wigs, I have to say, and I never looked sick. Getting ready in the mornings went really fast because all it required was a shower (no shaving necessary anymore), a little makeup, and plopping one of those wigs on my head. But when my hair started growing back, it came in really curly (I once had straight hair and I had no idea what to do with the crazy tiny curly locks that were now on my head). Instead of cursing and crying, I simply learned to embrace and love my hair, even if it wasn’t cooperating. I found a great stylist who has become a great friend, and I never get mad at my hair. I love my straight iron. And when all else fails, I simply put it in a pony and be grateful I don’t need wigs anymore. It’s amazing how small things really don’t matter anymore– and hair is one of them.
3. I became fearless
During my marriage, I started to fear everything– flying, snakes, clutter, heights, germs, death, dirt, unemployment, clothes that didn’t fit right, not making the mortgage, not hosting a flawless dinner party… Anything that might represent “imperfect” or risky was a source of anxiety. But when I found out I had cancer, I cared about nothing outside of my health, children, family and closest friends. Talk about finding my priorities in a second! I learned that I despised my husband and I didn’t want him near me, that the career I had built over years (and had sacrificed so much for) mattered not at all, and that all those possessions I had spent tons of time and money acquiring meant absolutely nothing.
These days, I hang glide, fly without cringing even during turbulence, celebrate birthdays instead of obsessing that I might be a year closer to death, and don’t care if there’s too much laundry in the hamper. I’d much rather spend time and money creating memories and experiences than buying more and bigger. If I ever do feel anxiety coming on, a yoga session is in order. Health first, children second, family and friends third, and everything else competes for what’s left. Possessions really don’t matter.
So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for cancer and divorce. Even during life’s most traumatizing events, great good can come from them. A Big Huge Life Lesson for this girl.