In the fall of 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer. As cancers go, I was pretty lucky: I needed no chemo or radiation. A skilled surgeon removed it with about a third of my colon, it has not returned, and now I get to make writer jokes about having a semicolon.
It could easily have gone a different way. I could have ignored my symptoms long enough for it to metastasize, or it could have been more aggressive, or my surgeon could have been less thorough. Or it could all have gone exactly as it did, and I could have taken a different view of it: I could have decided having cancer meant my life sucked, given myself up to terminal grumpiness and pessimism. I could have chosen to be a victim instead of a man in control of my own life. I could have decided God hated me; I could have decided I hated God.
I won’t pretend it wasn’t a stressful time. In the weeks between my diagnosis and that first post-op consult with my oncologist, I flipped back and forth between joy for the moment and paralyzing fear. My family and I shed plenty of tears. I forgot to be grateful occasionally, much as I do when life gets hard today.
But there were moments I saw with clarity, moments I realized I have cancer, but I have cancer in the twenty-first century. My tumor is operable, and people live twenty years even with stubborn cancers these days. There were moments I remembered to be grateful for where I was.
And there was plenty else to be grateful for. My wife and kids faced my cancer more bravely than I did, conscious of it but never letting it overcome them. We knew they would be financially okay if I died. We tried to face it by embracing each other in the moment, by loving the time we had together. Much of the time, I think we succeeded.
I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. But sometimes I find myself looking back on my cancer with gratitude. Not for the disease itself, but for what we learned from it about ourselves and each other. For the way my friends reacted when they learned of it: with sympathy, encouragement, and hope. For the perspective it gave me on my life. For reminding me to say yes when something scares me, because the experience may prove to be more important than having another day just like all the others.
We all have our own trials. We conquer some of them and fall to others. We hate them as we struggle through them, an inch at a time, a day at a time. But if we can face them with courage, if we can acknowledge that the only way to overcome our obstacles is to go over or through them, we can let the process make us greater than we were before the trial. And one day, we can look back on them with gratitude and tell ourselves I would not go through that again in a million years. But I’m grateful I experienced it. Because without it, I would not be who I am today.
We can be angry about our past, hate it, curse the events that made us hurt. Or we can look back on them with gratitude. It’s a choice we get to make every day.
What choice will you make today?