Cancer survivor gratitude? Hurricane Katrina survivor gratitude? When I think of this as a topic for a piece of writing, at first my tendency is to scoff. I’m cynical and the idea of “gratitude” is everywhere these days. Truth be told, I am not a naturally cheerful person, I’m Jewish, so my glass is always empty … or full of piss.

But that’s at first. When I reflect on my experiences, I realize there was no other choice than gratitude. It saved my life and when push came to shove, the only way to preserve my sanity while battling cancer plus escaping numerous hurricanes in my New Orleans hometown, was to face reality with gratitude. I adopted the pragmatic “Eyes Wide Open” attitude about the negative impacts of a cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment and all the horrific agony that accompanies disease and natural disasters. Committing to having my “Eyes Wide Open” helped hang on to dear life when Katrina took my home and my identity.

My health and mental health improved enormously by learning to develop gratitude. It wasn’t easy for me, but as I stared at the ceiling tiles in the hospital corridor and reevaluated my priorities in life on a stretcher awaiting surgery, I found gratitude for my surgical team who attended me. “The best in the world,” I reassured myself. “Insurance,” I whispered as a prayer to those dingy, speckled tiles.

Then came my turn. I couldn’t simply “focus on the positives in my life” – I was way too scared to even go there. I started smaller, in less risky ways: my cancer belonged to me and in the quiet, cold corridor, I reevaluated what really counted in my life.  True to my acrid nature, thoughts of people I barely tolerated invaded my head space and decided right there, sheathed in nothing more than a scratchy gown, to get that heavy weight off me now. I have no time for someone who complains to me about their flight being cancelled to Paris or that Nordstrom didn’t send the right shoes.  Priorities, people! Tell me about the food! Tell me where you wore those shoes and how many blisters you created dancing! I decided to have more satisfying relationships with like-minded friends, not just fill my calendar. This proved valuable when I was too sick at times to even talk, much less entertain. Those were the people I needed in my corner.

When body parts are about to be removed, it’s amazing how reflection arrives to fill the void the organs leave. It occurred to me that only I was in the driver’s seat of my journey. It was not for me to be like a wet wash cloth and just show up for numerous chemo sessions, scans, blood tests and doctor appointments to submit my body quietly and submissively to this handling. And yet, I was not about to build my life around my disease. It can become really simple for cancer survivors to focus on only their health and I had to learn to walk the line between letting go and letting the medical staff treat my body almost separately from the soul inside. I had to remove myself from my body to some degree… and it became very routine to schedule my day around being poked and probed with needles, swabs, and to only be embraced by latex-covered hands. While I willingly surrendered my body, I had to become the butchest of sergeants to my mind. I tried never to allow myself to get into a fetal position and have a pity party. I reminded myself with sternness that after all, I had lived through the devastation of surviving Hurricane Katrina and had to reinvent myself at that point in time. Everything I knew was gone after the hurricane and life started over again. Gratitude for that experience stiffened my resolve and grounded my sanity.

Looking around the waiting room with other cancer patients also required great strength. One man looked like a costumed actor in Star Trek with wires looping in, out and around his head. I sighed, yes, he was worse off than me. At that moment, I was grateful, strong and determined to tolerate the immense pains of cancer. I was not afraid of chemo. It would not take me down. A month worth of shots every day in the stomach after surgery? No problem. I got that. Bones on fire after chemo treatment? I got that. Waiting in line for a toothbrush at The Red Cross after Katrina. Remember, I told myself, you’ve already conquered that. All of these difficult experiences presented me with resilience while resilience magically stimulated forgiveness.  Gratitude made me a warrior, on the ready to kill cancer cells travelling inside my blood stream. Gratitude also softened me and I smiled at the Trekkie in the waiting room. “We’re in this together, and I respect you,” I communicated with my eyes. These lessons are not lost on me now, though I’ve returned to a more normal life filled with making art and working, I still access both the warrior and softer sides of me while life calls upon me.

The benefits I received from countless hours of pain was recognizing that I am so grateful for my life’s journey. What used to feel like obstacles now makes me recognize experiences had enriched my life. I will always remember the stranger in the chemo room who was with her husband, the patient. I cried at the sheer shock of that liquid going through my veins while she handed me a freshly picked strawberry. I was so grateful for her kindness.

What other choice is there but to feel grateful to the elderly woman who serves coffee in a diner, always keeping my cup full? Or the young man at Publix on the ready to help me lug huge cases of water in my car. He noticed I was rail thin and had no hair. He knew I was sick and I was so grateful for him. I had gratitude for the birds singing at 5:30am in my yard and the sound of the water fountain. Gratitude made me focus on the tiny but significant things in life. I made sure there was no time to worry if my cancer cells were multiplying. I was going to be in the moment. It was time to put my writing and art out there. Be recognized. Feel and act like there is a future ahead. Feel blessed.

Losing your home to a historical hurricane and living with the challenges of cancer require iron clad resiliency skills. Things can become worse, but for me, I was grateful I had a team of smart, loving physicians and surgeons who were all in the battlefield with me fighting my disease. In escaping Katrina, it takes time to adjust to a new environment. I relocated without packing a thing. Slept in my car in parking lots and still knew I was better off than many others. The same with cancer. First shock, then try to process what happened to me.  I knew I was in the best hands and grateful. Throughout stress and uncertainty, my colleagues at work kept me emotionally erect and provided me a couch in the office so I could be physically supine. They rallied to be strong, so I could lighten up. Now, I pause to be mindful of what is going on around me to be completely in tune and grateful to others so very kind and generous.

My gratefulness will hopefully lead to a future of volunteering to help others struggling and I avoid thinking about my disease or how long I have left on this planet. I am always grateful every minute of the day that I am not in the hospital. You cannot put a price tag on a hug, it is so very special. I hug a lot now, even the lady who pours my coffee in the diner or a stranger in a waiting room. Why not? Life is precious, and I am grateful to be here.

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Cindy Small arrived in N. Alabama following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A native of New Orleans, she graduated from Tulane University with an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Masters in Historic Preservation Studies. She spends her spare time writing a weekly “Spotlight” column for The Decatur Daily as well as reading her non-fiction short stories on NPR. Published in various literary journals, her writings are always humorous added with a speck of arsenic.