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I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal since my son was born almost 23 years ago. I got the idea from Oprah, who was doing it because she said it helped us appreciate the good in life and could even make us happier (science now proves her right). This mattered to me profoundly at the time, because even though I had a new, healthy, darling baby I adored, a husband I loved, and a job I liked, I cried several times every day. I was flooded with post-natal depression.

Over the next few years, I wrote down three things I was thankful for almost every night. It got to the point where I scanned my environment all day for good things I could record later. No matter where I was, if I was paying attention, I could find something positive. A parking spot opened up. My baby was healthy. The weather was nice. My mom flew 10,000 miles to visit us. I finished a major writing project. My camera was close by when Max took his first steps. (It was 23 years ago; no cell phones.) We moved back to America. I got pregnant again.

It’s super easy to do this when times are good. Harder, but even more helpful, I’ve found, is doing this when life sucks in some way. It can help keep me from dwelling on my fears, disappointments, failure, illness and missing people I love. It can add light to even the darkest days.

For instance, the day I was held up at gunpoint in our driveway in Johannesburg, I was grateful that 1) the gunmen didn’t go inside the house, where my children were watching TV, unaware of what was happening 50 feet away; 2) that neither I nor the three friends who were with me were killed; and 3) that I had the name of a trauma counselor who could see me the next day. Today, when I look back on that incident, it’s the things I was thankful for that I remember most.

The day my mom died, I was grateful that I’d moved back to Denver two years before and had been able to spend so much time with her and help care for her when she got ill. I was grateful for the love and support of my husband and my kids, who were with me when she passed away. And I was glad for her sake that the months of suffering from end-stage cancer were over.

During May this year, when I learned I had metastatic breast cancer and was admitted to the hospital, I didn’t keep my gratitude journal every day. It was at home, for one thing; and the combination of shock, the toxicity of my body from my failing liver, the pain meds, two weeks of almost-daily medical procedures plus all the anesthesia put me in a kind of numb survival mode. I will not lie to you – it was awful.

BUT, there were still things I was grateful for: 1) kind, smart, concerned, capable doctors and nurses; 2) family and friends who were beside me every step of the way; 3) health insurance; 4) the success of the second procedure to stent my liver, which meant my jaundice/toxicity improved and I was able to start on chemotherapy; and 5) the hope that, as my oncologist said, if I could get through this near-fatal phase, and my body responded to the chemo, I might live a while longer. In fact, he said that responsive metastatic breast cancer can now be treated “like a chronic disease.”

Fast-forward six months

This week, I learned that the new oral drugs I’m taking – which I can take because my liver is now functioning normally – have been incredibly effective in suppressing my cancer. My radiology report said, “Near complete response.”

 

HURRAY! HURRAY! HURRAY!

Talk about something to be thankful for! My gratitude journal entries that night:

  • “Near complete response.”
  • “NEAR COMPLETE RESPONSE.”
  • Both kids home for Thanksgiving.

We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we respond. For me, being able to respond with at least a little gratitude has been life-changing. Now every day truly is thanksgiving.

If you’re interested in starting a gratitude practice, there is no special equipment required. I keep mine in the back of my Filofax with whatever pen or pencil is nearby.