On November 29th 2007, ten years ago, when I’d just turned 40, a local eminent spinal surgeon had to give me some news that made my life stop in its tracks. He was looking at MRI images of my spine and seemed to be struggling to find the right words to tell me that my complaint of lower back pain was inconsequential; he could see the source of my discomfort was due to natural wear and tear for my age.
His apparent inability to communicate effectively came out as, ‘Have you come to the clinic with anybody today?’. ‘Err, no actually, I’m on my own’, I replied, which was followed by what seemed like a very long silence on his part. My mind flitted to what my husband was doing right at that moment, thousands of miles away in Japan and I started to feel a bit uneasy. I hadn’t been in this kind of situation before: alone with a doctor, being asked if I was alone. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I remembered things I’d read and seen on TV which made me think, THIS IS NOT GOOD.
The way the conversation went next is a bit of a blur to be honest. But, what I do remember clearly, were the words that floated at the front of my brain for many long, sleepless nights afterwards which were, ‘shadows’ and ‘lungs’, and the memory of the ridiculous burning sensation in my cheeks when I’d told him, this Very Important Surgeon, that I’d only ever been a social smoker in my distant past, not a proper smoker, as though that would somehow make him think differently of me. But this type of shadowing was not tobacco related. It was different and was related specifically to my breast cancer.
In an awkward way, for which I forgave him, the spinal consultant was trying to tell me that my breast cancer consultant would want to speak with me urgently. Putting two and two together came up with zero, never mind four because back then, I knew nothing about secondary breast cancer. ‘Why, what has this got to do with her?’, I asked, struggling to make the link. In the weeks that followed I learned very quickly why it was everything to do with her.
I always tell my children: the most important conversations are often the most difficult ones to have. That conversation with the spinal surgeon was one of those difficult but important conversations. In the space of five minutes, my life as I knew it would always be different. Lots of you will have had five minutes like that; a slot of time which heralded significant change in your life. (I have photograph albums that I look at with invisible captions on them that only I can see, which read: Before I Knew I Had Secondaries and After I Knew I Had Secondaries. Trauma does that to you).
Once I got past my two-year life expectancy prognosis, I was 42 and I dared to think that I might reach 43, 44 or even 45. (Making negotiations with time is something that patients like me do a lot. Reaching big milestones but then wanting more, is something we do quietly so as not to seem ungrateful for the time we’ve already had).
Each month between then and now has passed and somehow, as my oncologist says, ‘the months have turned into years’, and I’ve achieved this monumental milestone which saw my twin sister and I, celebrate our 50th birthdays last month. (Yes, I know, some of you are sick of hearing about it, and yes, my celebrations have been all over Facebook for several months now but it’s because it was something very special to be celebrated). I AM 50. WE ARE 50 and WE WERE ABLE TO CELEBRATE IT TOGETHER.
The fact that I am now 50 and am writing this blog is nothing short of exceptional (the part about me being here to write it of course, not the blog itself!) It’s a word I’ve been told I’m allowed to use by the medical people who know about this kind of thing. Apparently, I’m described as, ‘an exceptional survivor’, currently defying statistics and the data on 10 year survival patterns. And, now I’ve entered my fifth decade, I really cannot stop smiling. I am so grateful because it’s something that I never thought I would see. I’ve had so much more time than I expected and it’s given me a perspective on being grateful that I cherish.
So, what is it that’s special about gratitude, a concept so massive that whole books have been written on the subject? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s one of the biggest things in our lives which if we get even half right, means we’ll end up happier and more fulfilled.
Now, if you are somebody who is truly grateful for everything and everyone that you have in your life and I mean truly grateful to the point where, if the world ended tomorrow you would have no regrets, then stop reading. I’m talking to the converted if that is you and I salute you for the saintliness of your outlook. But, for the rest of us mere mortals, it’s great to visit regularly, the importance of gratitude and what it means to be grateful.
Humour aside, life can sometimes be very hard indeed and at the most challenging times of our lives it can be hard to see anything to be grateful for. Within my own extended family and within the lives of some of my friends, life events have happened that have been far from fair. In fact, they’ve been the polar opposite of fair; major, life changing, crushing events that have left gaping holes in their lives. It’s at those times that showing gratitude is hard because grief, anger, fear and acceptance all must have their rightful place before gratitude is allowed back in.
We’ve all been told from a very early age that time is a great healer but what we come to understand and learn as we get older and what I know at 50, is that it’s what we do with our time that heals. Being able to show gratitude again when a light has gone out in our lives is part of that healing process.
I’ve had the privilege of spending time with and getting to know people for whom life has been extremely hard and there is so much that I have learned from them. Their ability to show gratitude in the face of extreme adversity is humbling. It’s given me lots to reflect on and lots to think about.
On that note, below are some pointers that I’ve written to help me keep the grateful switch in my head turned to ‘on’. It flicks to ‘off’ sometimes because I’m human. Some of it might resonate with you. Some of it might not.
- Health, family and friendships are the things that really do matter. Material things do not.
- Celebrate the small things that happen every day. Every day isn’t going to be a great day but it’s a day that we can be grateful we’ve had.
- Don’t cloud your vision by wanting. Try and see the good things that are there right in front of you. Seeing is more clear, when you focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have.
- Try not to be a complainer; someone prone to moaning. It’s too easy to say what’s wrong with everything and find fault. Make a list of all the things that are good in your life and look at it regularly.
- The great outdoors can be a wonderful source of inspiration. Even on days when you don’t feel like going very far, stand at your door, open it wide, breathe in some air and be thankful for that simple activity. There are lots of people who aren’t able to do even that.
- Keep a gratitude journal (before you laugh, there’s scientific evidence that shows it’s a really beneficial thing to do for our wellbeing). Focussing on three things at the end of every day that we are grateful for and writing them down, really helps to be reminded of the things that have happened that day, big or small, for which we are thankful.
- Say ‘thank you’, a lot. Out loud and also silently. They are two short words that carry such clout. Giving thanks both outwardly and inwardly is a thing that we sometimes forget to do but there is always some thing to be thankful for.
With grateful thanks to being 50.
P.S. Here’s my 83-year-old Mam. With gratitude and thanks Mam for everything you’ve done for me and for your view on life that’s always encouraging. When life has thrown you lemons you’ve always managed to smile.
P.P.S. In a week where Shelter have published their latest figures on homelessness, spare a thought this winter for the 307,000 people in the UK who don’t have a roof over their heads or a bed to call their own.
As I said, there’s always something to be thankful for.