Thankful…for cancer?

Several months after my diagnosis, I shared with a friend about my cancer, and her response was: “Well, that’s the best kind of cancer to have. Just be thankful it's not lung cancer.”

The snarky side of me wanted to respond: Yes, that’s the first thing that crossed my mind when the doctor confirmed my diagnosis: I’m so glad my body chose this cancer, because I only want “the best” kind of cancer.
Perhaps I should go through a list of dire diseases I'm also thankful I don’t have: Ebola, Parvo...Dutch Elm!

Obviously, I wouldn't say something like that...out her face.
But it did bring up a salient point, and got me to thinking.
Am I thankful that I have cancer?

I'm a firm believer that an attitude of gratitude is something to be cultivated.
While it may be cliché, I'm convinced that while we can’t always control our circumstances, we do get to control our response/reaction. It’s easy to become selfish and overly ambitious when we are only focusing on what we want and what we don’t have rather than taking the time to be thankful for what we do have. Likewise, we can become extremely negative if we only focus on all the bad things in our life.

For example, I know I could focus on all the things I've lost as a result of my cancer and treatments.

Independence and mobility.
Physical intimacy.
Financial stability.
A successful career I worked many years to build.
My personal sense of security.

So, am I thankful for my cancer?
As a Christian, I've been taught that I'm supposed to.
But to be honest, my answer is...No.
In fact, Hell, no!

And let me add to that: I don’t know that I ever will.
Moreover, I don't think I should have to.

To me, requesting or requiring such a mentality for a horrible disease hints at a capricious God, who inflicts bad things on us...but then demands that we are grateful for the attention. It's morbid and fatalistic, in my opinion. A little like religious S&M.

That said, I know I still get to choose my attitude. 
As a Christian, one of the Bible verses that’s a comfort to me during this time (there are many, by the way) is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which instructs: “in everything give thanks…”

In this exhortation, I'm not told I must be thankful FOR everything that happens, but in any situation, I can choose to give thanks.
That works for me.
And that has been my choice in the midst of my disease.

  • There's my wonderful, loving, caring partner. (I see him across the room as I write this, and an overwhelming rush of emotion wells up in me.) Not everyone would have the patience to deal with the long-term, lasting effects of this sickness. He is a gift from God, and I am thankful. 
  • I am surrounded by wonderful people who encourage me. It's been heartwarming and empowering to experience the outpouring of love and support, often from people I haven’t seen in years and even from some I don’t actually know, beyond an authentic connection on Facebook.

Author's Note: Having a lingering, prolonged disease can give insight into those who are truly there, not out of convenience, but from genuine concern and compassion. (And conversely, those who are aren’t.) You find out your “priority status” in the life of many, including family. Truthfully, it’s not a fun lesson. It can be emotionally devastating. So it’s a choice to focus on those who are there and be grateful! 

  • I’m thankful for a lifelong faith that helps me see beyond the circumstances and the disease. Even beyond the possibility of a dire outcome. I can honestly say that I have no fear of what’s ahead. I am not being defeatist, but I'm coming to terms with eventuality. My faith is firm; not in my ability to “handle it,” but in God’s strength and presence through it. That’s not a theological platitude for me. It’s reality. As I told my partner when we learned my diagnosis, “God is big enough for this.”  
    A few verses after being told to give thanks in everything, I'm reminded:“The One who called [me] is completely dependable.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24 The Message) That's where my faith is formed and founded! In each situation, my faith assures me God is in control.

For me, gratitude is not relegated to some kind of Pollyanna comparison: at least I don't have lung cancer, at least it's not as bad as it could be, at least I'm still alive, etc. (Or, as one person insisted, "At least you didn't lose your hair.")
I don't even see that as gratitude.

Yes, I can be thankful.
Not about cancer, not for the cancer…but "in" the midst of the cancer.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Note: Portions of this post were originally published on a previous blog; it has been revised and updated for this entry.