Thanksgiving with a Side of Gratitude (or Not)

Thanksgiving is a big meal, and the main course of the holiday is gratitude.

Cervivor is a place to get real. So let’s put this on our holiday table: is gratitude easy or tough for you? As cancer survivors, can we confess that we sometimes have a tricky on-again off-again relationship with gratitude? If you’ve just received a diagnosis, gratitude is the last thing on your mind. It wasn’t on my mind in the chemotherapy chair.

As a survivor, I am epically, hugely, ginormously (seriously!) grateful for every day that I have. But that is mixed, still – 18 years later – with the feelings about my lost fertility and, on a bad day, frustration about my ongoing health battles with the after-effects of cancer.

The reassuring part is, I know I’m not alone. I just need to turn to Cervivor Stories and the Cervivor blog to know that others are riding with me on the emotional rollercoaster of the holiday season. I’m feeling grateful to the Cervivors who wrote so honestly about their own gratitude struggles. Thank you for keeping it real. And honest.

 “I wasn’t in a spirit for any holiday after receiving my diagnosis. Everything had gone dark. That year there was no giving thanks on Thanksgiving, no tree for Christmas. What was the sense of doing all that if I felt uncertain about my life? It took a while for me to feel ready to fight back. It was a difficult journey, but I got a second shot at life. Now, I give thanks every day as if it were Thanksgiving Day. I celebrate each day and see it as a gift given to me like a Christmas present. There’s so much I want to do, and I don’t take anything for granted. I see life differently now. Problems that seemed huge are not so big anymore. I really don’t sweat the small stuff.”  – Patti

It’s perfectly normal after cancer to have feelings of depression and anxiety. However, once we acknowledge them, we get to CHOOSE what to do with them… Since cancer, I choose to live in a different state of mind. Cancer brings you face to face with mortality, death, and time. Once I began to digest my mortality, it changed my mindset toward every single thing.

I no longer look at the holiday season with the same weight and importance as when I was a child. I still love them, and Christmas is STILL my favorite. But I live with much more intention and purpose now. Every day is Christmas because for me it’s a state of mind that I choose.  New Years’ Eve brings hope and excitement, but I am just as excited about the next 365 days of opportunity and growth.  This shift isn’t something that just happens. For me, it takes a bit of work.” – Holly

It’s hard to feel grateful when you are nauseous, exhausted, depleted, and in pain.  That’s ok!  I would go into a cycle of feeling depressed, and then get mad at myself for not being more thankful that I would make it out of this alive. My boyfriend would constantly tell me, “You’re ‘should-ing’ on yourself again.” 

Going through cancer is hard enough, and the side effects both during and after treatment are draining (to put it mildly).  We should at least be able to give ourselves a break… People write inspirational and positive blogs to give others strength and hope, and to advocate for change, and all of that is useful and wonderful.  But sometimes it is nice to hear that people are struggling with the same crappy emotions that you are. We all have those moments of sheer frustration and anger and complete debilitating sadness over the hand we have been dealt, and that is ok too.” – Ana

This past year has been a process.  A process of grief, depression, anxiety, anger and many tears, as well as gratitude, blessings and opportunity.” – Megan

I had so much unresolved grief and unanswered questions. Cervivor help me settle some things within myself and fulfill the need I have for service to honor my mom. I am so thankful that Cervivor has once made me believe that I can go on. I can go on and help fight cervical cancer.” – Lillian

Do these reflections resonate with you?

What are you grateful for, and what are your gratitude struggles?

Please share in the comments below. We are here to listen and we are here to support you.

Tamika Felder is an 18-year cervical cancer survivor and award-winning women’s health advocate. She is the Chief Visionary at Cervivor – a nonprofit dedicated to cervical cancer advocacy and support. Named a “Cancer Rebel” by Newsweek in a 2017 cover story, Tamika is a highly sought-after speaker on cervical cancer advocacy, cancer prevention, HPV education, and living life with purpose after cancer. She is the author of “Seriously, What Are You Waiting For? 13 Actions To Ignite Your Life & Achieve The Ultimate Comeback.” Tamika currently serves on the steering committee of the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. She’s also shared her story and experiences on Presidential Cancer Panels convened by the White House. An award-winning television producer, Tamika is currently filming a documentary about cervical cancer, the women living with it, and the vaccine to prevent it.  Her story of patient-to-advocate / survivor-to-Cervivor inspires and mentors not only patients and medical communities, but anyone who has struggled with obstacles in their life.

Emotional Ups & Downs

I am not a crier.  Never was.  My sister is a crier. We can’t even mention the movie Up without her breaking in to tears for 30 min.  And just forget about mentioning any movie where a dog dies.  In fact, she is probably crying just reading these sentences! (I love you baby sister!).

But, not me.  I never cried at movies, cards or commercials.  In fact, I balked at those who did.  I considered people who were so sentimental and empathetic, weak.

I am not a crier.  Never was.  My sister is a crier. We can’t even mention the movie Up without her breaking in to tears for 30 min.  And just forget about mentioning any movie where a dog dies.  In fact, she is probably crying just reading these sentences! (I love you baby sister!).

Enter Cancer.

After caner I can’t watch any movie where anyone dies of cancer.  Not a mother  Not a child.  Not a dog.  In fact, I can’t watch movies where anyone dies, period.  It send me in to a panic attack that can last for days.

After cancer everything feels risky.  Traveling anywhere, forget internationally, and even short domestic trips.  Driving fast.  Sometimes even just leaving the house for a dinner out or a night with friends.  After cancer there are many days were I just want to cocoon up in my bed under the covers because that is the only place I feel safe. Every accident on the side of the road, every news story about a shooting, every Amber Alert, every Facebook post asking for prayers, I feel like it is happening to me.

After cancer I feel so much empathy for others going through trauma that it can be completely overwhelming and draining.  I feel the pain of a death or a recurrence from cancer deep in my hear..  It is a stabbing, throbbing pain that cuts me to my core.  I feel the pain of a mother taking her child to the ER as a tightening in my chest that can take days to subside.  

After cancer I am a crier.  I cry at movies and tv shows.  I cry at Facebook posts and on the phone with friends.  I have probably cried more in the 2 1/2 years after cancer than I did in the 36 years leading up to it.  It feels unnatural to me.  Like I am being a wimp or not being strong.  But I know that’s not true and that this is who I am now.  I am a much more sympathetic and empathetic person after cancer.

This empathy is for both the trials of friends, family and even strangers, but it is also for their joys and triumphs.  I cry when I see my kids up on a stage during a performance.  I cried when I watched my sister walk down the aisle.  I cry when a coworker celebrates good news.  Cancer intensified all of my emotions, the good and the bad.

Feeling so many emotions for both myself and for others can be draining and it has also forced me to sometimes shield myself from others.  There are days when I have to take a break from social media or phone calls and texts because I just can’t “feel” any more.  There are days that I know I can’t show up for a party or a girls night out or a family dinner because I am overwhelmed with feelings.  I need to give my brain, my body and my heart a break, from both the bad news and the good news.  

The highs after cancer are even higher and the lows after cancer are even lower, and this constant pendulum swing can take a toll on even the strongest person.  Be kind to yourself, during the highs and the lows.

Ana is a stage II cervical adenocarcinoma survivor & Cervivor Ambassador.  She lives in Mountain View, CA with her fiancé and two children. She is excited to take on a new job next year as the Dean of Greene Middle School and enjoys spending time with her family and being an advocate for the HPV vaccine.